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The gospel of John: “Independent agents bring something different to the mix”

From accountancy to licensing – via an appearance on a front cover of Mills and Boon – John McInnerny has been one of the constant presences in the business. We catch up with him as he moves into semi-retirement.

Ideally, chatting to Allsorts Licensing’s John McInnerny about his long career in the rights and licensing business would have taken place over a leisurely lunch. Due to COVID-19 this unfortunately wasn’t to be, but that certainly doesn’t stop his journey from accountancy firm to the licensing agent we all know and love being any less interesting.

Over the course of his career, John has worked with brands including Andy Capp, Betty Boop, Che Guevara, CowParade, David & Goliath, Dogs In Da Hood, Felix the Cat, Flash Gordon, Hagar, Hamsta World, Lassie, The Lone Ranger, The Muppets, Popeye and Olive Oyl, The Smurfs and Yoga Cats and Dogs among others.

Bershka was a key deal for Betty Boop.
Bershka was a key deal for Betty Boop.

He set up Allsorts Licensing just over 20 years ago, telling us: “I was lucky as King Features and IMPS came with me, so it gave me a good base to build the business. I can remember my first deal as it was a non-deal. I was out for lunch in Huntingdon and saw a fruit machine which was a play on words with one of our brands. The artwork was also similar. There was no admittance of guilt but a fee was agreed which was a nice first month invoice! They also agreed to discontinue the model.”

John’s relationship with King Features has endured through the years – Bulldog Licensing was confirmed as the new UK and Ireland agent in May due to John’s semi-retirement – but there have been major deals throughout his career across all clients.

“On Betty Boop, the deals signed long ago with Fashion UK and BB Designs were, I believe, the first licence that either company took and they have become stalwart licensees in the industry,” says John. “In the statue/figurine business, JJ Vaillant and Wade Collectors Club have longevity, with the latter having been a licensee for 25 years. Also getting listings like the one in Bershka by Park Agencies is key for any brand; it helps build the story.”

The CowParade was the first art display to take to the city streets in 2002.
The CowParade was the first art display to take to the city streets in 2002.

Meanwhile, John also highlights deals with James Winchester, which produced the figurines for the London CowParade in 2002 in the UK, Ireland, Holland and GAS – “they sold so many cows” – and Blue Sky Designs, which sold Hamsta to Primark, “it was an important placement for a brand which is continuing to grow with a new series coming”.

“More recently have been deals to tie-in with the 40th anniversary of the Flash Gordon Movie which comes up later this year,” John adds.

There have been many changes across the years of course, but the one mantra which John believes licensing agents should bear in mind above all others has remained constant. “Be professional at all times,” he says. “You are representing brands on behalf of principals and this responsibility is not something you should take on lightly. This attitude will help you build the brand in your territory.”

And when it comes to advice for those just starting out in the business, John has this to say: “When I was a young man in business an older gentleman told me to fight cynicism as you get older. My suggestion is to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself as this is a small business and if you do not follow this rule it might come back to bite you.”

While John’s immediate plans may have had to be put on hold due to the pandemic, he’s hopeful he will retain his connections with the licensing business, while he has also become a trustee for a UK charity which works on sanitation projects, sex education and makes hand wash for use in schools in Kenya (where he used to live as a boy).

Blue Sky Designs placed the Hamsta brand into Primark, helping to raise awareness.
Blue Sky Designs placed the Hamsta brand into Primark, helping to raise awareness.

So, where does he see the future of the rights business?

He concludes: “The big boys have become ever bigger in the last few years and this may continue, but I hope there will still be a place for independent agents. They bring something different to the mix – they have to have talents across the industry and do not always get the respect they deserve. I have lots of friends in this sector and have been proud to fly the banner over so many years.”

John and his wife Collette were the cover stars of a Yugoslav Mills & Boon edition.
John and his wife Collette were the cover stars of a Yugoslav Mills & Boon edition.

“It was either licensing or auditing forever”

John joined a chartered accountants firm when he left school and one of the partners, Dennis Silverton, also ran an agency called Universum Press selling comic strips, Mills and Boon love stories and transparencies for front covers in the former Yugoslavia for a client.

“It sold cartoon strips/album material from Dargaud Editeur, Dupuis, King Features and Lombard,” John explains. “We did our first and only licensing deal for Asterix sweets. A few years in at the accountants he asked me whether I would be interested in getting involved and attending the Frankfurt Book Fair and the rest, as they say, is history. It was either that or auditing forever.”

As well as the Frankfurt and Bologna book fairs, John would also go on selling trips to Belgrade, Zagreb and Novi Sad within Yugoslavia.

John joined The Yaffa Newspaper Service in 1982, which took advantage of an active market for features, whether magazine articles, cartoons, puzzles or comic strips – the company had cartoons such as Hagar the Horrible in The Sun for many years and Tintin in the Funday Times section of The Sunday Times. It graduated to licensing in 1986, initially on an exclusive basis for King Features.

John adds: “My wife, Collette and I actually appeared on a front cover of one of the Yugoslav Mills & Boon editions with a wedding day shot. It sold 32,000 copies. We are still married as this goes to press.”

(Main image: John with David Chown (left) and Russell Schooley (right) from long-standing Betty Boop licensee, C&S Collectables.)

This feature originally appeared in the summer 2020 edition of Licensing Source Book. To read the full publication, click on this link.

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