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Looking Out: the best of 2021… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes presents his highlights from a year of Looking Out.

Seeing the displays of annuals in shops like WH Smith and Waterstones always makes me reminisce fondly about some of my favourite Christmas presents from childhood – my Tiger & Scorcher annuals.

I remember characters such as Hot Shot Hamish, Billy’s Boots, Skid Solo, Johnny Cougar and, of course, Roy of the Rovers with much affection.

With this in mind I have turned my thoughts to a Licensing Lookout Annual – a whistlestop tour of some of my ‘best bits’ from a year’s worth of Looking Out. I definitely need to give my eyes a rest – the Christmas break has come at the right time!

The Tiger annual was one of Ian's favourite Christmas presents from childhood.
The Tiger annual was one of Ian's favourite Christmas presents from childhood.

I should also say that I now have the great pleasure of working with Rebellion Publishing, the owner of the Treasury of British comics archive which includes titles like Tiger and Scorcher. I get to work with my childhood heroes and reflect on some very happy memories.

So here are my Top Ten highlights from 2021’s Lookouts… in no particular order:


LL4There seems to be an increasing move to licensing and licences being used in ‘exclusive’ ways by retailers. This, of course, has an upside not least that it guarantees retail space for rights holders, but it can also have pitfalls. One being how do you roll a range or property out beyond the exclusive partner? Like many things in licensing it is a waterway that needs to be navigated with care.

One of the leading lights in ‘exclusive licensing’ is Iceland. It seems to have embedded ‘exclusives’ into its retail strategy in a deep way. Licensing features heavily in the portfolio with exclusive ranges including lines from Mary Berry, Slush Puppie, Harry Ramsden’s and Gregg’s. It seems to be working and has resulted in some very interesting NPD.

A sector of licensing that seems to be on the rise is the heritage sector. Pioneers such as the V&A and the Natural History Museum have helped roll out a red carpet for other heritage brands.

In my own work we are seeing success with The Ashmolean Museum as licensees are being signed up. Heritage licensing has opened new doors for some licensees and created fresh creative impetus for others. There are, of course, a number of well established expert licensees in the category like Museums & Galleries, Star Editions and Surface View. I expect to see more activity from this category in 2022.

The Shaun the Sheep interactive games at the Electric Gamebox was featured at BLE.
The Shaun the Sheep interactive games at the Electric Gamebox was featured at BLE.

I have also been impressed by the innovation and enterprise shown by live events and experiential companies in 2021. Against a very tough and challenging backdrop, this sector continues to engage with licensing and to create some fantastic licensing partnerships.

During Brand Licensing Europe, I had great fun playing the Shaun the Sheep interactive games at the Electric Gamebox, while it has been good to see brands such as Dr Who come alive in the category. There are also some long-term success stories in the sector – Brainiac is a great example with a range of stage shows still in the market, while The Snowman stage show is now established as a Christmas classic.

Also costume company Rainbow Productions continues to thrive and innovate, bringing characters to life in a range of settings and really representing licensing well. It does a great job for the industry (and yes David and Simon are my friends, but Rainbow is a great example of how licensing can help a business grow).


LL3I think we all agree securing retail placement and distribution is becoming more challenging.

With this in mind it has been encouraging to see how the garden centre sector is still embracing licensing and how licensed products seem to be succeeding in that category. This year I have visited a number of garden centres and observed how they are stocking licensed products across categories stretching from food to kitchenware onto books and gifts.

Of course, there are also numbers of ranges that are more directly related to gardening including a number of branded seed ranges. In this sector, the RHS has a strong foothold and is a further example of a heritage brand that can thrive in a competitive market.


LL5In a similar vein it has been good to see how licensing is developing in some relatively new categories.

One great example is the area of pet accessories and pet apparel. This year we launched a Wallace & Gromit pet range. It was a particular highlight for me as I was able to persuade my whippet Tess to get involved. She modelled a Wallace sweater very well.

I think this could be a category that will grow from a licensing perspective, but I also think it is one that has to be managed carefully. Quite often we can be guilty of over supplying a category with licensed opportunities and in turn the category turns away from licensing.

Of course, a big highlight in the latter part of the year was the fact that events such as The Licensing Awards, the B&LLAs and BLE were back on. Well done to all the organisers. It reaffirmed to me that licensing is a networking business and it is vital to meet people face to face. Conversations can meander in unexpected ways.

Let’s hope current circumstances are a temporary blip and that in 2022 the licensing show will be firmly back on the road.

Another area that has had a good 2021 is ecommerce. This has definitely been an area of rapid growth. It is also one well suited to licensing. Products can be developed and marketed very efficiently to consumer groups who are interested in them and it allows a wider pool of IP owners to reach their core followers.

It has also allowed a lot of smaller companies to gain traction and expand. It is also a sector that has a variety of companies operating in it, from global players like Bradford Exchange through to specialist operators like Truffleshuffle. With careful research it is possible to find partners to match your objectives and it is a way of developing some great new products.

A personal highlight this year has been working with PONG Cheese to launch a Wallace & Gromit Cheese selection. I don’t think we would have been able to do this without ecommerce.


LL2Another positive for me this year was seeing engagement from retailers such as DIY companies.

Magazine brands Country Living and House Beautiful have branded kitchens exclusively available in Homebase. This shows that licensing and brands can have a value in a range of categories, but a key point is that the brand is used in an appropriate way.

I am sure that a partnership like this one is a multi layered one and I think as an industry we have to be prepared to explore deeper commercial relationships that are more longlasting. They can bring big rewards and create a very efficient business model.

It has also been good this year and last to supplement my normal Looking Out with a number of interviews with industry colleagues. I would like to thank all of those who took time to chat to me. It is always worthwhile listening to others and hearing others perspective. In current times it is easy to work in isolation and take on a silo mentality. My advice is to chat to industry colleagues and to be commercially curious.

My final reflection from a year of Looking Out has been that it has been very encouraging to see so many great licensed products out and about on my travels. I think the quality of licensed products in the market has risen over recent years. There are more and more examples of well thought out products with clever design and innovation. This is a trend that I hope will continue. Licensing is an added value business and we need to keep adding value rather than taking it away. A strong licence will always have commercial value and consumer appeal.

Wishing you all a peaceful and safe Christmas break. I think we have all earned a period of rest, relaxation and reflection. Finally, a round of virtual applause to LicensingSource’s editor Samantha Loveday. She does a fantastic job and has helped many of us get our message out this year in challenging times. Thanks Sam and keep on running!

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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