Downes to Earth: The rise and rise of Ian Downes and Start Licensing

Before we begin, let me explain one thing; I like Ian Downes.

As a writer, I like that his name lends itself to a multitude of headline worthy puns that, to this day, haven’t bettered ‘Downes the hatch’, our title for an article written by him on the strength of the food and drink sector.

As a person, I like that Ian Downes is so bloody likeable. He was one of the first of the licensing industry folk I got to meet when I took up the role of staff writer with back in 2013, and he has been a sage source of knowledge and an educator along my journey within this business, ever since.

I’d dare say that the day Ian Downes stops orating on the industry is the day that its trade titles find their content dry up by at least a third. At least.

But perhaps the one of the many affable aspects of Downes – the People Awards winning licensing executive – that would most interest those reading this right now, is that he likes licensing.

He’s also very good at it. As founder of Start Licensing, the multi-faceted agency with ties to some of the biggest brands in the world, and with 25 years’ experience in the industry behind him, it’s only to be expected.

Combine all of this together and you can see why Downes is here now to talk about Start Licensing’s second, often less-acknowledged side to the enterprise: its work as consultancy agency for the licensing community.

“It’s something we have been doing for some years now, anyway, it’s just that now we have decided to make it a legitimate facet of the business,” Downes tells me.

“The facet that most people know about is as an agency representing properties and that will carry on as a core part of the business. But increasingly over the last five years or so, we have done more bespoke consultancy work for people, which has ranged from pulling together licensing strategies for companies like the National Gallery to get ready for licensing, all the way through to taking on specific tasks for people like the Royal Mail.

“We have helped a number of brands or companies find partners in particular categories of licensing over the years and have applied our network of contacts in very strategic ways.”

While it has been a branch of the Start Licensing tree for a number of years, it is now, at a time in which the licensing industry itself is seeing an evolution in the kind of opportunities available to it, that Downes has taken the decision to focus on consultancy.

“There is a whole category of companies and brands that are interested in licensing and want to get involved in it, but don’t necessarily want to take a full step into it with an agency outside of their company,” he explains.

“From that point of view, we can offer them a project focus for a very specific time period or task and, in some ways, get them started.”

Maybe you’re one of these companies? Maybe you feel tantalised by the idea of licensing, but not looking for a 20 licensee programme kicking off with master toy line? Perhaps you want to simply use licensing more strategically for one or two product categories?

“Because we have the flexibility of how we are set up as a company, we can do that kind of thing,” says Downes.

“And that is a reflection of the fact that the sources of licensing are changing as well…that’s not to say that the entertainment business, for example, is any less important as ever, but there are other types of licensing opportunities coming from all different sectors.

“Sport licensing is on the rise, fashion brands, personalities, heritage – it’s all conducive to this being a timely opportunity.”

Known across the industry for its portfolio of iconic brands from Aardman and Wallace and Gromit to the likes of The Beano or Britvic, it’s at this point that Downes wants to emphasise that as an agency, Start Licensing is very much "still alive and kicking." 

In fact, over the last month or two, Start Licensing has kicked off licensing efforts for the TV personality Nadiya Hussain, has picked up representation of the TV and book property Claude and has started working on the Spirit of Concorde, an upscale brand developed in association with a documentary film celebrating the iconic Concorde aeroplane.

"Spirit of Concorde is a good example of a project that we are working on in a hybrid way; as an agency blended with consultancy," Downes explains. "We think there are a handful of categories to focus on and we are closing the first deal on the brand as we speak. It is an opportunity to be specific in licensing terms. "

With all this on the boil, it just so happens that the firm’s consultancy resume reads just as impressively.

Already, it has acted as consultancy for the Royal Mail, the National Gallery, it represented Sky Television to help with some pop-up projects around the Are You Smarter Than A Ten Year Old? brand, worked for over two years as a consultant for Channel 4 on The Snowman and the Snowdog alongside Copyrights and Penguin Ventures at the time, and helped bring Guinness World Records into the licensing arena, too.

It’s a CV that has offered Downes and the Start Licensing outfit the opportunity to tap into a broad horizon of licensing opportunities.

“One of the things we did for Sky was bring Brainiac alive as a licensable IP through toys and gifts with Paladone, but one of the biggest successes was being part of a team that created the Brainiac Live show,” recounts Downes.

“It started as a theatre show in the West End and then toured around the UK before going into a couple of other formats and ended up a show that was put on at Butlins.”

We’re a long way from Kansas now, Toto, and licensing certainly isn’t all about t-shirts and toys anymore, but a much more diverse world, and to thrive in it, says Downes, you need to be creative, innovative and open minded about the ways in which licensing can be used.

“That’s one of our strengths,” he continues. “And that’s important for people who are new to licensing to know. If you want to be careful in how your property is used, we are a safe pair of hands, yet, also very proactive in contributing thought into the process. Key to this is listening to what a brand is all about, its DNA and who its consumer are, we would never suggest something that isn’t right for each unique brand.”

In the case of Guinness World Records, it was speaking with the book’s editor, getting to know record breakers and – heaven forefend – engaging with the public. It was a level of research that allowed Start Licensing to understand and help translate the brand’s message into the consumer products space. Brokering a deal with Paladone (an important step for the firm into the licensing arena itself) it found success.

And at a time when “licensing generally is becoming more competitive than ever,” with “supply outstripping demand,” making it harder for properties to break through, getting it right first time is imperative.

“The market is more competitive and challenging, conversely it means that licensing is much more on the radar in terms of retail and manufacturers,” continues Downes.

“One of the challenges is for people like us to find ways to engage people in the process. We don’t just work from a template and from a consultancy point of view, these are important skills for us to utilise, too.”

The key word here for Downes is engagement. More and more, brands are looking at new ways to increase the level of consumer engagement, while simultaneously, the struggling retail sector is eyeing new means of driving footfall and increasing shopper numbers. It’s a recipe that has, over recent years, given rise to the live, experiential sector.

At the time this interview took place, Debenhams had just reported an 80 per cent slump in profit and its CEO, Sergio Bucher, had laid out plans to bring more experiential initiatives into shopping.

“It makes sense in terms of getting people into stores,” says Downes. “You want to have something more than just buying a product and I think that whole part of the retail mix is a massive opportunity for licensing.

“I take an interest in new and emerging business and I am always thinking about how licensing can be applied in that sector. It’s a pretty exciting part of the future for licensing and there’s a whole clutch of new areas that don’t understand the full potential that their brand has at the moment.”

What Downes also offers is a one to one consultancy that not every outfit can. And while acknowledging of the work that LIMA does in educating newcomers to the licensing industry, seminars aren’t always as personable.

And you don’t always get cake and a can of coke. I did tell you that I like Ian Downes.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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