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The Licensing Lookout: In conversation with… John Vasta

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes catches up with John Vasta, founder of Black Mint Licensing, to find out how the market in Australia is performing.

This week I managed to catch up with John Vasta. John runs his own licensing agency in Australia called Black Mint. I spoke to him to get his insight into the Australian market and to undertake some long-distance Looking Out for me.

John spent a number of years working in the UK licensing market. I employed him when I was md of Fox Kids. He cold called me looking for a job: he had worked in the Australian Academy of Licensing aka Gaffney Licensing and was coming over to the UK. I found his proactive style and enthusiasm very appealing and was glad to offer him a job. It worked out really well. John did a great job for Fox Kids and went on to work at Nickelodeon before returning to Australia to start his own business.

John knew Kelvyn Gardner and has included some lovely words about Kelvyn. Like us all, John was shocked to hear the news about Kelvyn, but John’s words show clearly what an impact he made on his licensing colleagues and how he has left a global legacy in the licensing industry.

John Vasta, founder, Black Mint.
John Vasta, founder, Black Mint.

John: Firstly, I wanted to send my sincere condolences to the Gardner family with Kelvyn’s passing. It was such a shock to hear this terrible news. Like all in the industry, I always enjoyed meeting with Kelvyn and his passion for the industry was unrivalled. I remember having a great dinner with him in Melbourne a few years ago and it will remain a long lasting memory, along with our many conversations over a few pints at industry events over the years. His legacy will live long in the international licensing industry.

As someone who worked successfully in the UK licensing market, when you returned to Australia what were the biggest differences you noticed between the two markets?

The two industries are quite similar in approach to licensing, but the retail sector in Australia is more like the US where there are leading mass retailers which dominate the business. The UK, I found, had more tiers and retail specialists to work with. This makes the competition fierce for shelf space in these limited number of retailers with lots of brands competing for this same space.

As an independent licensing agent, how did you find 2020?

The start of 2020 was definitely challenging for new business given the uncertainty with COVID, but as the year progressed more licensees and retailers became open to new opportunities in Australia and New Zealand. All in all, the retail market for licensed products appeared to hold up relatively well as key stockists of licensed products in ANZ were able to mostly remain open, apart from in Victoria over the winter months.

Could you give us a quick snapshot of what you are currently working on?

My business is representing a fantastic range of different brands in different sectors. Within the toy sector I’m working with Zuru on Rainbocorns, in gaming I represent Capcom and Crossy Road from Hipster Whale and in brand and design I’m working with Jewel Branding on Rachael Hale and Bouffants & Broken Hearts, as well as Design Plus on Slush Puppie. Over the past year I’ve also been fortunate enough to represent new content creators in Hearts By Tiana with The Social Store and I’m representing the How To Cook That channel globally which has over 4.5 million YouTube subscribers.  I love the diversity in my portfolio which creates opportunities in many different retail outlets.

My business is into its tenth year in 2021 and there are more exciting milestones, and changes, on the horizon this year…

John pictured with Seattle Seahawks team members at the NFLPA stand at Licensing Expo.
John pictured with Seattle Seahawks team members at the NFLPA stand at Licensing Expo.

What are the leading properties in Australia at the moment?

The Australian-based animation Bluey seems to be everywhere at retail at the moment and I believe is performing very well. The studios in Disney, Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon and Universal continue to have significant market share with their properties, but challenges in content development due to COVID has opened up opportunities for brands in different sectors.  Zuru’s Rainbocorns is the perfect example of this where we are signing up partners in multiple categories as we speak, and we will have a strong on shelf presence from the second half of this year.

Are there any trends in Australia we should be aware of in terms of emerging licensing categories?

Supermarket loyalty promotions using licensed characters is definitely a trend in Australia. Both leading grocers in Australia – Coles and Woolworths – have run multiple loyalty promotions which have driven exceptional sales growth. In the past two years, Woolworths has run Disney promotions with Lion King Ooshies in 2019 and Disney+ Ooshies in 2020. The success of these promotions has created a number of category opportunities, for not only Disney, but licensed brands as a whole. Buyers within these retailers have seen the power licensed brands have to drive sales growth, which is a fantastic thing for our industry.

John implemented a successful Garfield programme with Peter Alexander.
John implemented a successful Garfield programme with Peter Alexander.

Can you highlight a couple of stand out licensed products of the moment from your market?

Rather than specific products, I’d like to highlight two retailers in particular who do a fantastic job with licensed product. First is Peter Alexander, a specialist nightwear retailer which develops licensed capsules multiple times per year. Its development always brings a totally unique approach to brands which brings a freshness to a property and often creates long-term opportunities with other retailers. Before its acquisition by Viacom, we implemented a successful Garfield programme with Peter Alexander.

Cotton On is the other retailer to mention. Similar to Peter Alexander, it takes a very different approach to licensed product across kids, women’s and men’s apparel ranges. When it gets behind a collection, it makes a true brand statement. In 2017, Jewel Branding executed a brilliant Bouffants & Broken Hearts collection in Cotton On Body stores. From humble beginnings, Cotton On has become one of the world’s leading fast fashion retailers, which is a great story for a business based in regional Victoria.

A Bouffants & Broken Hearts collection appeared in Cotton On Body stores back in 2017.
A Bouffants & Broken Hearts collection appeared in Cotton On Body stores back in 2017.

If you were to host a licensing barbecue which three people or characters from the industry would you invite?

That’s a very difficult question as I’ve met so many great people over the past 20 years in the best industry in the world. I’m going to go sentimental with my answer and invite the three people I’ve not only built a great working relationships with, but also lifelong friendships.

First, is yourself Ian. You’ve been a great mentor and friend over many years and I always enjoy our banter – even if it’s often at my expense! Secondly, Trudi Hayward was someone I built a great business with at Nick but always had lots of laughs with along the way. And finally, Ash Holman. Ash and I also worked very well together, but also built a great friendship over many late nights out in London town. It would be a great BBQ, but I’d of course have to be in charge of the ‘barbie’ to uphold the Aussie cliché!

Can you give us one memorable anecdote from your time in the UK industry?

As with many in the UK industry, a number of the best anecdotes will always include the Roy Lowe boys. I remember not long after I started at Nickelodeon I was invited up to the Sock Mine for a Friday meeting, followed (of course) by a pub lunch. The meeting went well and we headed off to the pub where Martin said he would take care of ordering lunch for everyone. I was thinking a nice fish and chips or a scrumptious bangers and mash. No chance… that’s not how they do it ‘up-norf’. I was greeted with a plate of double eggs, beans, chips and gravy to be mopped up with buttered bread and washed down with a room temperature pint of ale! Talk about a culture shock for a green Aussie!  Needless to say I was converted after that and enjoyed the special Lowe hospitality for many years to come – with the highlight being the last games of the season at Mansfield (go Stags!).

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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