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The Licensing Lookout: The one before the show

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes begins his BLE prep by heading out on the road.

If I was a band I would be in the middle of The Before the Show Tour. The show being Brand Licensing Europe. It seems that the run up to the show gets busier and busier each year with pre-show meetings.

In my case this has meant visits to Oxford, Sheffield and Bristol in the last week. I actually achieved a first on my tour this week. I arrived at my overnight accommodation to find it so dreadful that I checked out within five minutes. The proprietor didn’t seem that phased so I reckon I wasn’t the first to do so. Not all properties are what they first seem…

My trip to Sheffield was to see licensee GB eye. I have known and worked with GB eye throughout my licensing career, so I think it is fair to describe it as a long-term licensee. It originally focused on posters but expanded its offer to encompass other forms of wall art such as canvases and prints.

However it hasn’t stood still and, responding to shifts in the market, it has expanded its product offer to embrace products such as breakfast sets, glassware, composite gifts, keyrings and mugs. It has also added value to standard categories – for example 3D and figural mugs. This has allowed it to broaden the distribution and engage with different types of licences. For example genres such as manga and anime – categories of licence that have loyal audiences, but ones that can be difficult to reach unless you are prepared to develop distribution in specialist channels, online and mail order.


GB eye is a good example of a modern licensee which has recognised it needs to evolve and broaden its offer. This is good to see and good for the industry. It is vital to have a pool of licensees that are capable of bringing a range of IP opportunities alive and ones that recognise that consumer markets exist beyond the high street. Furthermore, GB eye has added UK manufacturing to its business with the ability to print items like mugs locally which allows it to offer more bespoke designs and to target specific distribution such as museum shops. Again this opens up new channels for licensing.

While in Sheffield I also spotted another example of the worlds of brewing and music coming together in a collaboration. This one surprised me on two levels. One because of the band brand being featured and the other because I was due to see the said band a few days later. Very targeted product placement.


The product in question was a Soft Cell Say Hello Wave Goodbye ale. It was promoted with a bold neon typeface echoing the band’s style guide and it was a very nice pint. A great example of how iconic bands like Soft Cell have a broad appeal and ability to cut through in busy markets. Soft Cell played to 20,000 fans at the O2. With new techniques in selling, manufacturing and distribution, it is becoming more feasible to target this kind of audience with a select suite of bespoke licensed products. Bespoke licensing may come into its own. Although even then it might be difficult to revive Sigue Sigue Sputnik through licensing. You might need a Google search to find them.

As well as a week of travelling and 80s electro pop, it was also a week of reflection. I attended a memorial concert for Robert Sutherland at the Royal College of Music. Robert was a driving force behind Redan Publishing. As LIMA’s Kelvyn Gardner reminded us in a well crafted and touching tribute, Robert helped create a new category in comics with the development of preschool and early school Fun to Learn comic magazines. Robert and Redan recognised the value of licensing in this market, but also recognised that it was important to build mutually beneficial partnerships. To steal a song title from the 80s, Robert really was This Charming Man. But a very shrewd one to.

Redan continues to flourish. It is a great example of how carefully chosen licences that are nurtured and enhanced with good quality NPD can make a real impact in a competitive market.


A measure of Robert’s standing in the licensing community was the fact that so many licensing agents and licensors attended the concert. This included a few who are now retired but who played a big part in shaping the industry. One of those was my old boss Richard Culley. Richard and his business partner David Caldwell founded Copyright Promotions and were key figures in the licensing industry. It was great to catch up with Richard and share some fond memories of Robert and other licensing times past. In the hurly burly of modern licensing it is easy to overlook the contribution that people like Richard, David and Robert made to kickstarting the industry.

I worked with Richard on Beano back in the day and next week will be the first time for a long time that I will be at BLE and not representing Beano. Our partnership with Beano Studios has reached a natural conclusion and we are no longer representing the brand. I wish the brand and the team involved with it well and hope they have a fun filled future. I have lots of fond memories of representing Beano and take pride in deals like Dr Martens, Wild and Wolf, the Raleigh Chopper bike and more recently partnerships like the art-based ones we brokered with Horace Panter and Art & Hue. A career highlight was winning an award from the Character Exchange for being the agent who most looked like the character they represented. I never saw any likeness between me and Dennis. But a win is a win!


I look forward to ‘looking out’ for you at BLE. Please stop by and say hello at F66.

Also remember that the delightful and popular Nadiya Hussain will be interviewed at BLE on Tuesday. Nadiya will offer an insight into her work with BlissHome, the first licensee working with her.

It should be a great opportunity to hear from a well known personality and their thoughts on licensing.

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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