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Behind the scenes of the creation of a new breed of sports licensing business

In the first of a three-part series, Simon Gresswell takes us on a journey of the changing sporting landscape and how he’s harnessed this to offer an evolved sports licensing business.

My career in licensing fortuitously started with Copywrite in 1992, an unstoppable force in the stationery, bags and BTS categories and a family run business, known now as Blueprint. Why fortuitously, because it gave me a solid insight into rights acquisition, design and product development (thanks Russ Bennett), client management and the hard fought battleground of selling to retailers.

To be honest, who could resist the charms of the inimitable Mike Redfern and his team? A great group who were certainly the go-to licensee of the day and seem to remain so to this day in their categories.

Harley-Davidson was among the brands Simon worked with at Copywrite.
Harley-Davidson was among the brands Simon worked with at Copywrite.

That learning & knowledge led me to a role in licensing and promotions with CPL (as was) and more learning, guidance, wider IP exposure and frankly a lot of good times with a phenomenal agency team. Again thanks especially to Angela, Richard and David RIP, for taking the punt on me.

Now everyone thinks they had the best years in a certain era, usually way in the past or perhaps even right now, with prestigious clients, IP and colleagues – but I think all of my former colleagues of those particular couple of years would agree, that those were definitely some of the best of times and we have all remained great friends and achieved a whole heap of different things since, due in part to that experience.

My work varied from FMCG and QSR promotions to early licensing development in the leisure sector (AWP and SWP games, where Monopoly and Cluedo literally cleaned up), as well as character and IP-themed TV and poster ad campaigns with Mr Men (Glasgow’s Miles Better), Wacky Races (Eagle Star insurance) and Indiana Jones (Vauxhall Motors) to name a few, as well as countless presentations to advertising and promotions agency, with guest appearances from various characters (including Darth Vader at Leagas Delaney, when then colleague Daniel Avener suffered a tortuous 10 minutes, being made to wait outside my ongoing presentation, fully suited and helmeted, until just the right moment and signal to enter the board room, thanks Dan!).

My Happy was the face of Glasgow's Miles Better campaign, one of Simon's early promotions at CPL.
My Happy was the face of Glasgow's Miles Better campaign, one of Simon's early promotions at CPL.

Seeking more international work, I joined TCC (now TCC Global) at the outset of a new HQ for the Special Projects division, based in Utrecht, NL in January 1996.

As the licensing specialist, I was given carte blanche to plan a licensing and licensed product collection strategy, to help the company grow the then ‘Special Projects’ now ‘Special Event Campaigns’ division. Fast forward four years and my plan to essentially ‘fish where the fish are’ had worked pretty well, initially focusing on sport, more precisely football across Europe, then stepping into character with Disney, which the company grew into a very successful ten-year deal.

I acquired numerous IP and image rights of national and club teams all over Europe and pulled together a World Stars’ collection (a jigsaw of agent and player negotiations, impossible without help from some of the people named below…), all of which we translated into solid, tangible, collectable ranges of medals, figurines and other collectables, supported by creative, collector collateral and in-store POS and paper or TV ad campaigns, founded on proven promotional mechanics and massive amounts of data, shared by the retailer clients which included Shell and Sainsbury’s, to name drop a couple.

This was TCC’s M.O and very attractive it was too to retailers, with some strong results in terms of overall uplift of cross-store sales, revenue and profit.

Medals were among the many collectables Simon worked with at TCC.
Medals were among the many collectables Simon worked with at TCC.

My strategic approach was to acquire all rights as options, until we were able to actually convert into a commitment to a major short-term loyalty programme with a retail client. In the background, we had key partners in our suppliers, who would turn on a sixpence to make things happen for us and these high volume programmes, such as the evergreen medal collections (huge thanks to Adrian Pobjoy RIP and Paul Ennis).

Undoubtedly not so easy to do these days, but I think this bloke from Blighty, in a suit and trench coat, living in Holland and visiting football associations and federations on a weekly basis, offering them ways to make quite significant money not spend it, was mostly warmly welcomed as a result, pretty much everywhere across Europe.

Anecdotes were numerous of course, but one of my favourites remains my first encounter at the mighty DFB (The German FA). For privacy no names of course, but when greeted by my ‘meeting’ in a reception rammed with trophy cabinets (latest addition the Euro 96 cup), I broke the ice by remarking that the German team have many more trophies than the England team and how this must mean that “you are much better at football than us”. Without so much as a flicker of an eye or the hint of smile, the clinical response I got back was “Yes… we are”. Cracking start I thought.

Simon still has a set of four-inch World Stars figurines created while at TCC.
Simon still has a set of four-inch World Stars figurines created while at TCC.

So, as a huge sports fan, I loved what I considered the small challenges of the role, like the first flight/last flight routine of short-haul travel, the product development trips to factories in China, semi-negotiating in languages I couldn’t really speak, or waiting for 2.5 hours outside the office of the CEO of a Turkish football club, to get the nod to “make we money”.

Market entry was sometimes not as obvious as the EU or via the FTAs of these days. My then boss and now great mate, Jamie Edgar and I were surprised to be relieved of our passports at the gates and escorted by Kalashnikov-wielding guards to meet the ceo of a possible supplier, when doing what we thought was the decent thing of looking to ‘work local’ first, before introducing foreign suppliers to the market. To then be greeted with high tea and a translator who spoke less English than I spoke his language, in an opulent, wood-panelled office, was quite a charming difference from the understandable suspicion with which we were met at the gate!

Four years of great work, good times and a huge sense of camaraderie within TCC, yielded strong results in terms of turnover and profit, such was the success of these structured and lucrative programmes for rights holder, retail client and service provider. I enjoyed every second, made some lifelong friends and ‘played’ in the world of sports every day.

There were many ‘career highlights’ during the work around Euro 96, France 98, Euro 2000 and the Millennium and some prestigious and fun meetings and dealings with football stars and their agents – from Daniel Amokachi and his twins boys giving me a lift back to Ataturk airport, pursued by several ‘interested’ fans on mopeds and motorbikes, to a brief encounter with a very young Becks with his original agent (thanks Tony Stephens) and the pleasant surprise of securing such rights as those of Carlos Valderrama’s (thanks Lucy Boxall).

And yes, I still have a set of the four-inch figurines we created, in country colours and with names across their backs (thanks to Richard Walker and the team at Synapse, the sculpting and 3D pioneers of the day, this side of the pond).

Tune in tomorrow to find out how SGLP – Simon’s consultancy – began to take shape.

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