Digital Durian champions local cartoon content
Calyn Yap 
Digital Durian wants to be a content IP creator for young children by giving value through edutainment, says Sinan

HOME-grown animation studio DD Animation Studio Sdn Bhd (Digital Durian), the creator of hit children’s music-based cartoon Didi and Friends, is narrowing its focus for growth.

Having made a name for itself on the local market, it wants to bring the studio global via partnerships to create intellectual properties customised for different markets.

Didi and Friends is now one of the country’s most popular preschool TV programmes, and has garnered well over 700 million YouTube views. With its new cartoon series – Omar and Hana – the animation studio is planning to tap the Middle East market, including Dubai.

It was hit children’s music-based cartoon Didi and Friends in 2012 that spiralled its creator DD Animation Studio Sdn Bhd’s (Digital Durian) to success.

All these are a far cry from when its co-founder and director Sinan Ismail started Digital Durian Enterprise in 2008, which was the culmination of his and partner Hairulfaizalizwan Ahmad Sofian’s dream to create cartoons.

As a small and new animation studio, they had no funds or experience, which was why they turned to business-to-business (B2B) multimedia servicing to “pay the bills”, says Sinan. At one point, the company grew from a team of two to nearly 20, but the good times did not last.

“We eventually ran out of contracts and money to pay our staff, so it went down to six or seven of us. It was pretty hard during that time,” he remembers.

Tired of animation, they diversified into something completely different – a business-to-consumer model focusing on trading wedding gifts sourced from Indonesia. Revenue was good in its early days and the team grew to 20 staff again, as it joined exhibitions almost every month to drum up business.

“We didn’t innovate ourselves enough to be a better brand that could command higher prices.

“We didn’t hire properly and there was no bigger vision to the business,” he adds.

A year later, the passion for animation resurfaced and the duo decided to return to their original objective of doing animation. During that period, they joined the MSC Malaysia Intellectual Property Creators Challenge (IPCC) in 2009 and 2010, as well as applied for government grants in 2011, but were rejected.

However, they did not give up hope but pushed on with one last try in 2012. The effort paid off. The theme for the year’s IPCC was edutainment and Digital Durian came up with Didi and Friends, which won it RM50,000.

Plushies are still the best-selling merchandise for Didi and Friends

Refocusing efforts

At the same time, the studio applied to participate in the Malaysia Digital Economy Corp’s MAC3 Incubator Programme, which successfully incubated local animation champions such as Animonsta Studios Sdn Bhd (known for BoBoiBoy) and Wau Animation Sdn Bhd (known for Agent Ali). Sinan says the incubator was a good place to start again.

With the funds, Digital Durian completed a full episode of 11 minutes on Didi and Friends. Unlike its current focus on preschool songs and music, the animation was initially focused on Didi and Friends as science explorers.

The studio discovered that preschool edutainment was a hard product to sell. It approached local and international TV broadcasters and joined industry animation events, but found that broadcasters had little room for children’s cartoons.

The feedback, he says, was invaluable as Digital Durian used it to upgrade the characters and focus. “My son was one-year-old and I was showing him children’s songs in English on YouTube, but realised we didn’t have quality children’s songs in Bahasa Malaysia.

From there, he did more research and found there were more than 10,000 searches for children’s songs in the national language. The studio also decided to change the medium of distribution, launching the cartoon on YouTube.

Digital Durian has no plans to rest on its laurels but is already planning for its next step forward, having established a strong following locally

Eyeing new markets

Digital Durian has no plans to rest on its laurels but is already planning its next step forward, having established a strong following locally. It wants to make the cartoon available in other languages such as in Indonesian, English, Thai, Vietnamese, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi and Mandarin.

The Indonesian channel has been up-and-running since March, with three million views to-date.

“It’s just picking up now and we’re putting more efforts into it now. Parents are very much involved and they’re actively seeking out good edutainment, so that translates well for us,” says Sinan.

Its new cartoon Omar and Hana was created to tap into a different market. Launched in February, the cartoon – available in English and Arabic – has already received 70 million views with 100,000 subscribers.

Similar to Didi and Friends, Omar and Hana focuses on children’s songs but is angled on basic Islamic learning and moral values. It has already signed on several licensees for merchandising and sponsorship. Digital Durian wants to sell the content internationally from the start and is already eyeing the Middle East, especially Dubai, as a potential market.

“We foresee having more IPs in the future but not so soon since we want to take our current IPs global first. The most important thing for us is to create value and make people happy, and ultimately to make the world a better place.”

Cartoon surpasses expectations

DIDI and Friends’ first video was uploaded on YouTube in May 2014 with a target to reach a million views by the end of that year. However, its popularity quickly surpassed expectations as it hit five to six million views.

DD Animation Studio Sdn Bhd approached broadcasters once more and was taken up by Astro.

“The first discussion was about broadcasting rights, but they told us they saw the potential and asked if we would give them merchandising rights. We told them to invest in the intellectual property [IP] and do it together in that case,” says co-founder and director Sinan Ismail.

The deal was signed in August a year later, and the cartoon first aired on TV in December the same year, which further elevated the IP.

Didi and Friends has become one of the most popular preschool TV programmes in the country, with over 700 million YouTube views, 700,000 subscribers and 70 staff.

It started merchandising its first product at the end of last year, at the launch of its first mini carnival, which saw the initial batch of 5,000 plushies sold out by the third day of the five-day event.

Its range of cartoon merchandise has expanded from plushies to books and videos as well, and stocked in major retailers nationwide including Aeon, Metrojaya, Popular, MPH and Speedy among others. By year-end, it will have more than 150 products on the shelves.

In line with its vision of making people happy, it also ventured into retail, such as Playtime with Didi and Friends by ZooMov in the Mines Shopping Mall that offers rides to children and parents. This is to encourage bonding between families, says Sinan.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 261.