Ian Downes, md of Start Licensing, looks at how an independent licensing agent can survive in the modern market.
Recently I was tidying up my home office space and going through some old box files. It dawned on me that Start Licensing Limited had been in operation since September 2003. For an industry that makes the most of anniversaries I completely overlooked Start’s 15th anniversary.
When I set Start Licensing up there were a number of independent agents already in business, many of whom remain so. The ranks have definitely swelled in recent years and it is now a flourishing part of the licensing landscape, but as a member of the independent club it is more competitive and challenging than ever. Sometimes it feels like you are a flyweight boxer fighting a super-heavyweight. That said I firmly believe there is room on the bill for those super flyweights as long as they keep bobbing and weaving.
My motivation for setting up Start Licensing was in part a family decision and in part a business one. Family wise I wanted to be at home a little more with my at the time two young sons Daniel and Calum. I had been working as md of Fox Kids Europe’s Consumer Products team and we had around ten offices across Europe; it was a ‘full-on’ job and we operated by necessity as a large-scale business. This encouraged me to think that there was an opportunity to offer the licensing sector a different approach. When I set up Start Licensing I emphasised the fact that we would provide a personalised and custom service to our clients (both rights owners and licensees).
Be an all-rounder
We still work hard at becoming a trusted partner of our clients and do our best to add value to our work. I think this is one way where an independent agent can stand out from the crowd. I focus on contributing creative ideas and suggestions. With Aardman Animations we have become part of the creative process and work closely with their design team. We have regular meetings to look at new product ideas, update design assets and brainstorm on new categories.
I think Aardman appreciates that Start Licensing can offer a rounded industry view and use our wider experience in tandem with their design flair. This process has worked well and has resulted in a number of new deals coming to fruition. For example, composite food gifting company Beams has developed Wallace & Gromit giftlines such as Middle Aged Spread Chutney – ideas influenced by visuals created by Aardman in response to our suggestion that food and food gifting was a worthwhile area to develop.
Furthermore we have been able to work with Aardman and their wider family of partners such as the Cheese Fest – part of the 30th anniversary celebrations for the brand. As an agent there are less restrictions on which field we operate in – a good all-rounder can be a great asset to a business.
Our business can be very flexible and fit in with our clients’ business needs. In the case of Aardman we focus primarily on sales and marketing, while they retain primary responsibility for tasks such as contract drafting and financing. I think this is one area that independent agents can major on – providing a custom approach to rights representation and showing flexibility.
An offshoot of this approach for us has been that we have developed a successful consultancy business working with a range of IP owners who have needed specific advice and services. This has included Channel 4 who we worked with to co-manage The Snowman and The Snowdog property; Penguin Books where we acted as a sales team for properties such as Ladybird; and Guinness World Records were we helped create a licensing strategy and then started the licensing ball rolling for them.
Currently we are working with Rebellion across its portfolio of classic comics including Misty, Roy of the Rovers, 2000 AD and Judge Dredd. Our role is not a fixed one and involves sales development, help with design development and other tasks such as helping to create exhibitions featuring content such as The Treasury of British Comics.
Look beyond the traditional
A good example of this in practice has been our success in categories like TV shopping, personalised products and live event merchandise sales. Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit have performed well in all those sectors recently, but have benefitted from products and designs tailored specifically for these channels.
As an independent agent it became clear very early on that lots of opportunities were off the table for us. Either because rights were tied up with others deals like TV sales or the size of our operation didn’t meet with the IP owners needs – for example many US-based rights owners want a one-stop shop to cover Europe. This forced us to think about what rights we represented and where we could add value.
We have worked with Britvic Soft Drinks for nearly ten years now and had a lot of success taking brands like Tango, Robinson’s and J20 into licensing. I think many brand owners regard licensing as an opportunity but are a little cautious about it. An independent agent can dedicate more time to them and their brand. We have majored on longevity in terms of licensee selection and partnership. Companies like Rose Marketing and Brand of Brothers have been Britvic licensees for seven or eight years.
Working with classic characters like Asterix also works in a similar way. We have put time into understanding the property, the people involved and the dynamics of the brand. In turn we have been trusted to broker specific deals and opportunities based on our expertise and relationship.
A final opportunity for UK-based independent agents is to ‘buddy up’ with similar agencies around the globe. Through my Fox Kids contacts I have a loose network of partner agencies in markets such as Germany and Australia – we can work together on projects when a multi-territory approach is needed. This can be a useful asset and adds to the weight of punch when pitching and opens up representation opportunities.
We work with US-based agency Jewel Branding on three properties that it operates globally including Rachael Hale and Kendra Dandy. This kind of partnership works well for us in that we get access to some interesting rights, while Jewel can plug into our local knowledge and know they have a trusted partner on the ground.
While the business of licensing doesn’t get easier, I am pleased that I decided to ‘Start Licensing’ on my own and am convinced with the right outlook that there is a bright future ahead for the independent agent. Reflecting back on the last 16 years I think Start’s 20th anniversary logo should definitely include the words bespoke, creative and flexible.