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The Licensing Lookout: In conversation with… Robyn Cowling

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes chats to Robyn Cowling about her licensing career and how she currently sees the industry.

This week in my short series of Lockdown chats I caught up with Robyn Cowling.

Robyn is probably best known in the licensing industry for being an integral part of the Underground Toys team. As the name suggests, Underground Toys specialised in distributing and creating products that were for a fan audience. Initially niche products. Because of its connection to fan and pop culture, it was able to identify opportunities around franchises that were off the mainstream radar but had a solid fan following.

Eventually Underground Toys was acquired by Funko after successfully distributing its product around Europe for a number of years. Funko is now, of course, very much on the radar.

I had the pleasure in dealing with Robyn and Underground Toys’ founder Andy Oddie over many years and a few deals including on properties like Power Rangers, Asterix and Gladiators. I have always found Robyn to be a great advocate for licensing and very passionate about it.

Fan driven products are now a core part of the licensing mix and Comic-Con is on the ‘show circuit’. It wasn’t always so and Robyn was a key part of the team that helped put fan culture on the licensing map. She also has an incredible eye for detail. Even under pressure.

I remember quite a few years ago going out for dinner with Andy, Robyn and a few of their US business colleagues in New York. It turned into a long and lively dinner. Andy very kindly picked up the bill. When the waiter presented it to Andy, Robyn quickly grabbed it and very speedily checked through it with the eye of a forensic accountant. We were all a bit ‘tired and emotional’ whereas Robyn was as sober as a judge. She called the waiter back and asked him to re-do the bill – we, or rather Andy, had been charged for five rather pricey bottles of wine that we didn’t have. They had tried to slip them onto the bill but the eagle eyed Robyn had spotted their ‘error’. I made a mental note that night to check all my deal memos three times over before sending them over to her!

Robyn has also been heavily involved in the industry charity The Light Fund and was one of a number of working mums in the industry. She is currently looking to get back into the licensing industry. I would thoroughly recommend her particularly in the fast moving world of pop culture. You would also be working with licensing’s number one bill checker and, judging by her photos, licensing’s number one costume character fan. Hope you enjoy our chat and thanks to Robyn for sharing her thoughts with me.

Stay safe and keep in touch.

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How did you get into licensing?

Like most people, I fell into licensing (or was I pushed?). I started my career in licensing as PA to the owner of Forbidden Planet and began specialising in licensing when he started the manufacturing side of the business.

As someone who has worked for a company that operated in the pop culture space, do you think licensing is good at developing products for fans?

I really do. When I was first on the scene, there was very little niche product out there. Any that was available, was, in my opinion, not really for the fans ie generally overpriced to cover the low manufacturing quantities and only available in the deepest darkest corners of comic book shops. These days there is so much time and love invested in the creative and that shines though in some really cool product on the shelves on the high streets. Being a geek is no longer an insult but a badge of honour, worn proudly.

During your time at Underground Toys/Funko, the company became very successful and grew rapidly. How easy was it to stay focused on a licensing strategy and how did the strategy evolve?

The company grew at a fantastic pace and it was a great ride. Fortunately, that trajectory was supported by some really cool brands which were our bread and butter and the strategy was always that those successes would support taking a few punts.

Was there a character or person you would have loved to see developed as a Pop! vinyl figurine that never happened?

We had a few management roadblocks as you’d expect, but most people were receptive to being immortalised as a figure. Personally, as a 90s fan girl, I would’ve loved to have done a deal for Empire Records POP! – I watched that movie over and over again as a teenager.

What are your favourite licensed products of the moment?

Since I’m now the proud owner of a couple of preschoolers, my tastes have changed slightly! I really love the big and small Hey Duggee socks from Roy’s Boys. The National Trust x Frugi product line is really well-executed and I think the range has managed to stay true to the ethos of both companies.

As a working mum, do you think licensing is a forward thinking industry in terms of work culture and flexible working?

It’s certainly getting there, but there’s still some work to be done I think.  Flexible working has been proven to increase productivity and reduce stress – it’s a no brainer really but it’s natural for people to resist change. I don’t think licensing is better or worse than any other industry, but we all need to do the research to attract the best possible employees. There’s plenty of previously over-looked talent ready and waiting for more flexible opportunities.

Robyn believes that the events of 2020 have given us a chance to regroup and think about working more collaboratively for mutual benefit in future.
Robyn believes that the events of 2020 have given us a chance to regroup and think about working more collaboratively for mutual benefit in future.

Do you think there is potential for licensing to further engage with fan communities and if so how do you think this could be done?

I think there’s more collaborative engagement to be done definitely, and perhaps now with everyone reeling from the shock of COVID, and the effects that will have on all our lives, it’s a chance to regroup and think about working more collaboratively for mutual benefit in future. Licensor/licensee relationships were headed in that direction in 2019 and I think if we’re mindful of other people’s businesses and practices, then we can work together and carry on reaching further into different markets and communities.

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

Some of the best ones can never be spoken of again – always lots of fun to be had with the licensing industry on tour in Vegas and the toy industry in New York. I’d be remiss not to take the chance to recall several pinch me moments when I was at San Diego Comic-Con and I was able to attend a few very star-studded parties at rooftop bars – a distant memory now as I type this from autumnal Kent in 2020, but I’m optimistic there’s going to be some light at the end of the tunnel!

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?

David Attenborough – an inspirational and aspirational figure, a fascinating conservationist and conversationalist. We could all learn a thing or two from him. His soothing tones would certainly be a bonus in a confined space, too.

Nadiya Hussain – she just seems like a thoroughly lovely person. Interesting, knowledgeable and very warm – like a hug personified.

Finally, I’d have a licensing guru – Tina-Louise Foster from Nimbus Nine. I always love catching up with her and no trade show is complete without an exhausted natter and a cocktail with Tina! She’s always got loads of collaborative ideas and I’m certain that she and I could never run out of conversation, even if we tried. Always wanting to turn a negative into a positive, I’m sure we’d all come out of the lift with ideas bubbling and cogs whirring.

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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