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The Licensing Lookout: In conversation with… David Wootliff

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes chats to David Wootliff about his licensing career and how he currently sees the industry.

Given those of us based in England are in a second lockdown, it has become a little bit more difficult to be Looking Out, so I thought I would take the time to connect with some other people in the licensing industry and ask them a few questions about their careers and how they see the industry at the moment.

The first person I have chatted to is David Wootliff. David has had a varied career in licensing, and one that has meant he has seen licensing from both sides of the fence having worked on the licensee and licensor side. He has worked at some high profile brand owners and licensees including Warner Bros., Rubies, Disney and Corgi. He has been involved in some fantastic licensing programmes and has a rich wealth of experience. David is currently not working in licensing, but is fully in touch with the industry and what is going on within in at the moment.

David is also a thoroughly charming chap. He is also a very tolerant person. A few years ago I had a share in a racehorse which happened to be running a race in the middle of a trade fair. Furthermore the race was scheduled to start at the same time I was meeting David. I explained the situation and he very kindly allowed me to listen to the race on my ‘phone on the stand in lieu of a meeting. I am pleased to say the horse won and we managed to have a productive meeting afterwards.

Hope you enjoy the conversation and it sparks off a few conversations for you with friends and colleagues. Hopefully we can all stay connected and keep in touch over the next few weeks. And we don’t get stuck in any lifts!

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How did you get into licensing?

I was lucky to have a student placement with Hasbro as part of my Engineering Product Design degree and found that many of the toys and games were licensed. I worked on Star Wars and Disney ranges and loved the product, the brands and the heritage of properties such as Star Wars – being a fan and working on the licence really helps you understand the consumer and opportunities in product development and ultimately sales at retail.

As someone who has worked as a licensee and a licensor how would you say the respective roles differ?

Licensing has evolved over the years and I feel the differences have changed significantly. Initially retail relationships were the domain of the licensee as was product development, but over time as the larger studio licensors have become more sophisticated, they have built retail teams and well structured creative teams, taking more of a hands-on role in both areas.

Today, a good licensor will work with creative insight, retailers and licensees. I do feel that the black and white relationship has become more grey with many shared responsibilities and at times the focus of the consumer and ways to add value through product development are lost. I remember when I used to be challenged to deliver innovation and a point of difference rather than just hit a RRP.

From a licensee point of view, and thinking of companies new to licensing, what are some of the common pitfalls to avoid?

I always pitch a licence as a risk – they can be incredibly lucrative but many are hard relationships to manage. I would promote shared expectations and not allow any deal to be just about the numbers. A great product should sell and generate the revenue. Some of the deals I’ve worked with have very unrealistic financial targets and at this point you stop seeing the opportunity and just try to manage the risk. I love it when you see something new and think ‘wow, what a great idea!’

What is your favourite brand you have worked on and why?

I’m a huge Star Wars fan and loved working with Lucas directly. I only got to go to the ranch once but to see all of the Oscars, be in the creative hub of such an iconic brand and to work with such passionate people was amazing. I feel the recent films have diluted the opportunity rather than focus the potential, but The Mandolorian is a wonderful new chapter in the Star Wars saga. I’m still a huge fan.

Thinking of that brand is there an idea you have for a new licensed product or range for it – what is it?

I’ve never been able to find well designed Star Wars ties – arty and fun, not to in your face – and I love it when brands come together such as the Star Wars collection from Le Creuset. I just wish I could afford the Han Solo carbonate dish.

What are your favourite licensed products of the moment?

I collect lots of licensed merchandise. I’m very pleased to see the Royal Mail and the Royal Mint take more of an interest in licensed opportunities – Star Wars and James Bond being both iconic heritage brands and home for fans with disposable income for these coins and stamps.

David has so many great memories from working in the licensing business.
David has so many great memories from working in the licensing business.

What have been the biggest changes in the licensing industry during your career?

I think the role of the licensing specialist has now become the role of the generalist – you need to know a little about everything now and there are lots more people in licensing. The demands of the studio licensor means you need to co-ordinate and manage the relationship across the whole of the business – back in the day it was more about the relationship than the MG and the re-forecast. I miss creative meetings and driving innovation, I miss working in partnerships with some of the licensors and driving retail plans with the licensor and the retailer, joint ownership of the opportunity.

Are there some trends that you see on the horizon that will influence the licensing sector over the next few years?

For a long time we’ve talked about personalisation, but I’ve still not seen it well executed on licensed goods. I think you need to embrace change and I feel 2020 will be the year to drive changes in licensing and across retail. I hope all of the companies survive and drive change to be successful.

For people just starting out in licensing, what three pieces of advice would you give them?

Be realistic, have fun and build relationships. The licensing industry is amazing, filled with the most incredible people and if you get those three ingredients to work, you will have an incredible career in a very dynamic world.

Can you give us one of your favourite licensing memories – maybe from a trade show, a deal or a specific meeting?

I have so many, the best memories with the best group of people… and some just can’t be shared. Stealing the only prototype in the world from one high level licensing meeting does jump out as a great one at the time but it had to then be managed diplomatically! It was my boss who told me to take it… honest!

I’ve had so many wonderful experiences, many in New York and Vegas and cried with laughter too many times! My time at Rubie’s and dressing up for licensing events has helped create many of these memories.

Finally – you are stuck in a lift at a licensing event… which three people or characters would you like to be stuck with and why?

Only three? I’ve worked with the best of the best and have so many I’d want to list. I do think when this is all over we need an industry party. My favourite three would be Paul Bufton (many reasons including his Star Wars stories), yourself Ian, as you are such a great story teller and Graham Saltmash but only if he is wearing his leopard print jacket.

These three industry icons have a natural ability to make you feel very conformable, offer advice and provide stimulating and fun conversation. I’d add about another 20 people if I could…

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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