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The view from Italy: “The sun will shine again”

COVID-19: how the industry is coping across the globe – today, Maurizio Distefano Licensing in Italy.

Maurizio Distefano Licensing (MDL) has long been a major player in Italian licensing, with a particular strength in developing campaigns for children’s animated properties. Bing, Masha and the Bear, ALVINNN !!! and the Chipmunks, and newer properties like Gigantosaurus, ZAFARI and Kit n’ Kate have led a very successful portfolio.

More recently, MDL has expanded its offering beyond animated properties to develop a diversified service with an appeal to multiple age groups. Drinks brands (like Baileys and Guinness), lifestyle brands (like Marie Antoinette), music brands (such as David Bowie, AC/DC and Genesis) and fashion brands, including some of Italy’s most creative young names, have led a promising strategy to bring the established MDL skillset to multiple new brands and categories.

Now, of course, that strategy, along with everything else in Italy, is on hold. But MDL, like so many other Italian businesses, is learning to adjust to the new reality – as far as circumstances allow.

MDL has expanded recently to include drinks brands in its portfolio.
MDL has expanded recently to include drinks brands in its portfolio.

We asked MDL founder and president Maurizio Distefano to explain how his company is coping and what advice he can offer the growing number of countries and companies about to face similar circumstances.

Inevitably, Maurizio says, business routines have had to change substantially as his team has now been working from home for over two weeks. “We are all used to seeing each other at the office, having face-to-face conversations and interactions. All of that is no longer available,” he says.

This is a time when remote working should, in theory, come into its own, but it’s not the same. Emails, phone calls and video conferences can close the gap but face-to-face meetings still matter. “I think we are now missing the human touch that remote working cannot provide,” Maurizio says. “Even before working from home, we had already stopped meeting with licensees and prospects since mid-February. It’s something I’m missing a lot,” he admits.

Searching for some semblance of normality isn’t easy. “There is very little left you could call normal at this moment in time. My team and I are striving to keep the business going but all Italian licensees are working from home and given the uncertainty about the future, only a few specific licensees are looking at new business at this point,” says Maurizio. That said, business hasn’t dried up entirely. “In fact, we have been able to close a few deals – even since the virus took hold.”

Broadcasters have increased kids' programming airtime of shows such as Gigantosaurus.
Broadcasters have increased kids' programming airtime of shows such as Gigantosaurus.

Lack of retail is undoubtedly a major reason for limited licensing activity. “Non-food items sales are down as all shops are closed except for groceries.” But even hypermarkets have been banned by the government from selling all non-food items (including apparel, toys and publications) to reduce the time people spend out of home for shopping.

By contrast, online businesses are doing well. “However,” says Maurizio, “it has now become almost impossible to order for home delivery from grocery chains due to the continual crashes in the hypermarkets’ IT systems; they are just not prepared to withstand such amounts of orders.”

So where do non-essentials come from? Until recently, as you might expect, Amazon had a major part to play in this market.

Inevitably MDL’s newest business – fashion brands – has been hit hardest, with all non-food shops and all major apparel chains closed. However, as many Italians are staying at home does that help MDL’s many TV properties – and of course its print licensees?

This is (perhaps) a modest cause for optimism for a company heavily invested in children’s properties. “Broadcasters have increased kids’ programming airtime to help families with kids at home to keep them busy,” say Maurizio. “In the long run, I believe that this increased TV exposure to animated brands will help drive the licensing business once the coronavirus crisis is over.”

And print is still accessible. “Bookstores are closed all over Italy but kiosks are still open. Families can go there (we have more than 25,000 kiosks throughout Italy) and buy activity books, colouring books and magazines that can entertain kids at home.”

Lifestyle brands such as Marie Antoinette are new to MDL's roster.
Lifestyle brands such as Marie Antoinette are new to MDL's roster.

Planning ahead must be difficult in such circumstances, but MDL will continue to do the best it can. “At this moment, we can only strive to keep a foothold in the market and be responsive to our list of licensees and licensors. In my opinion, this is the smartest way to weather this storm and be ready when things improve – hopefully later this year.”

Of course that’s the one thing that will keep much of the licensing business hopeful: the potential for a surge in demand as and when the crisis eases. Certainly MDL is keeping its full staff on board despite this crisis “as a statement to continuity and business sustainability”. Maurizio adds: “We will be ready and back in action once the circumstances allow – immediately.”

It’s hard to offer any really useful lessons at a time like this, but Maurizio is surely right to advise resilience. “I think the key learning during this crisis is that resilience is key. Never give up. always be on top of the business and always be available to your licensees, retailers and licensors.”

He continues: “In our industry, we are used to ups and downs – but this is something exceptional.” But he adds: “The bad times will end. The sun will shine again.”

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