THE BIG INTERVIEW: Ian Downes, MD, Start Licensing

"In a price conscious retail market it would be easy to slip back into label slapping mentality and to forget that licensing should be a value added business."
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Firstly, how have the last 12 months been for Start Licensing?

We have had a good 12 months. We won two Licensing Awards - one for the Britvic brand licensing campaign and the other for The Beano as Best Classic brand. This is a good qualitative measure of our progress and the success we have had for these clients. We have managed to develop a number of new licensee partnerships, see our licensing programmes grow and had a solid year financially.

I think Start Licensing is firmly established on the licensing radar and we are an agency that is well respected in the industry. I think we have also managed to keep our track record of showing innovation in licensing by working with new companies, focusing on NPD and trying to add value to our business partnerships. I set goals at the beginning of the year and measure the agency's performance against these - I think you have to be self critical and realistic - as some recent deals have shown we are progressing well in 2014. Recent announcements of new deals for The Beano with Brewer's Fayre and John Hornby Skewes underpin the fact we are not standing still.
I am also proud that this is the year of the Farting Football - Golden Bear's Dennis the Menace Farting Football was launched this year ...what more could a licensing professional hope for than to licence a farting football! A career highlight for me. And a good selling item.

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Can you talk me through any key signings, new clients, etc?

On the representation side we are working with Burton's Biscuits on their iconic Jammie Dodgers brand. This is a great new addition to our portfolio and build on our experience. We are very nearly at the point where we can announce our first deals. Brand licensing can have a longer development period than character licensing so you have to be patient and look to the long-term. We are looking at other opportunities in the brand space but it is a challenge on a number of levels.

We are also keen to focus on the great brands we already represent. I have always thought it is better to build business from within than constantly look for new things to represent; that said you can't stand still and it is important to look at good new representation opportunities. We are always keen to talk about new rights. We have also been working as a consultant to Channel 4 advising them on properties like Come Dine With Me , Channel 4 Racing and The Snowman & The Snowdog. We also look at new opportunities from their programming portfolio. This has been very enjoyable and builds on my experience with Fox Kids and Sky Television. We have also added a number of new licensees across the portfolio we represent including Symington's for Robinson's, Streamline for Fruit Shoot, John Hornby Skewes and Brewer's Fayre for The Beano and Beanbag Bazaar for Jacqueline Wilson. We have also had some new signings for Unilever including Trademark Products taking the license for Pot Noodle T Shirts. We are also really pleased with the products that H & A have developed for the Matey brand.

What have been your top performers?

Our Tango licensee 151 Products has performed exceptionally well with their Tango Shower Gels, Bath Foams and Handwashes. This has been a great product range that has sold well and continues to perform well. We believed in these products from day one and 151 Products have developed a range in line with their pitch. They have worked hard on sell in and sell through. The Britvic brands continue to perform well and I think we have been rewarded by remaining focussed and trying to be as 'on brand' as possible with the product development for Tango, R Whites, Robinson's, J20 and Fruit Shoot. I still think products such as the R Whites Lemonade Lolly from R & R are outstanding examples of licensing and show how brands can translate from one category to another.

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There's been a lot of activity with food and beverage brands over the past year – such as Tango and Monty Bojangles – can you talk through some of the key developments here?

Monty Bojangles – which is a brand that is very active and established in the confectionery sector particularly for its fine truffles – is still a relatively new client for us. We got to know them as a licensee - they developed some excellent Fruit Shoot, Robinson's and J20 products. We have licensed a recipe book to Hachette for Monty Bojangles as part of their 30 Best Loved Recipes Collection. Monty Bojangles have also just opened a Truffle Bar in Reigate in Surrey. The bar features their products and offers innovative coffee drinks like a Trufflecino. This is set to be a flagship for future brand developments and we are looking to work with licensees in areas like bakery, desserts and drinking chocolate.

The Tango licensing programme goes from strength to strength. We estimate this year it will be worth around £6 million at retail. We have very proactive licensees like Rose Confectionery who are exceptionally proactive at selling to retail and work hard to open up opportunities. We are always looking to add new licenses to the mix in a controlled fashion - Huntley & Palmers are launching Tango Jaffa Cakes shortly for example. We have tried to give each licensee room to succeed and not to overpopulate the licensee list. We have said no to a few licensees and opportunities that we felt were less likely to succeed. We are hoping to see more success in apparel for Tango. Poetic Gem have just got some Tango loungepants listed in Primark. We hope this will be a starting point for more success in this category. We are also working with Unilever on their brands Peperami, Pot Noodle, PG Tips, Knorr and Colman's Mustard. We are developing non-food licensing programmes for them. We are particularly keen to talk to kitchenware, kitchen electricals, cookware and gift companies for these brands.

And The Beano, of course, continues to go from strength to strength – what do you think is the secret to its success? What are some of the key licensing deals you've signed this year?

I think The Beano is successful because it has been well managed in licensing and the licensing programme is built on a firm brand foundation. The Beano has a rich heritage with well developed characters that are now part of UK culture. Characters like Dennis the Menace, Gnasher, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids have instant recognition. The Beano works well as it exists on a multi platform basis - there are the comics , there is the successful Dennis & Gnasher TV series, the annuals high profile PR and some strong promotions. DC Thomson have shown a great commitment to support the brands in the licensing areana over the last couple of years which has helped raise visibility in the trade. There is a good attention to detail on product development. We work closely with licensees to try to create products that reflect the brand well and will appeal to consumers.

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We have renewed a few deals recently which is always good - one example being with Lagoon Games for small boxed games, puzzles and gifts - they have enjoyed good success with their Beano range and are adding to it. We have also seen a good upturn in Dennis the Menace and Gnasher deals. The TV programme is very popular and Penguin Books have had a great reaction to their Diary of Dennis the Menace books.

As well as this we have concluded new deals with Trademark Collections for bags, Rubies for dress-up, BlueSky Designs for stationery, Shreds for aprons, 151 Products for toiletries. John Hornby Skewes for Musical Instruments and Neviti for partyware. These licensees join existing licensees like Blues, Portico and Gibson's - there is now a very strong collection of licensees for Dennis & Gnasher. We are also pleased with the bespoke deals we have done with the likes of Raleigh for a Beano Chopper bike , Dr Martens for Beano footwear and Jennie Maizels for iron on/sew on patches. A key thread of The Beano licensing programme is innovation , clever partnerships and developing new categories - we think this keeps the programme fresh and interesting. WE are also delighted with the Brewer's Fayre partnership which provides a great presence for The Beano and Dennis in the family dining sector.

Start has a very eclectic portfolio – is there anything you feel is missing that you would like to add?

I think we have a relatively focused portfolio - built around classic properties and properties that are well established in their own right. Brands and characters like Asterix and Tracy Beaker are well known and well recognised - they may have challenges to face in licensing but fundamentally they are successful properties., It sounds obvious but I think we are keen to work with established brands. Given our success with FMCG brands we are looking to develop one or two new partnerships in the brand arena but not necessarily FMCG brands. We have reached out to some brand owners to discuss licensing the brands.

What is the single biggest challenge facing small agencies such as yourself at the moment?

I think there is a challenge in terms of scale - the business is more demanding and places more demands on agents - it is a challenge to fulfil these demands. I think we do but there is a contant need to look at the service we are providing as an agent. That said I think a smaller agent can be more nimble , more innovative and more proactive than some of the larger scale agencies. We don't have as much financial muscle but I think we can compensate with good ideas, experience and sweat equity. I think the big will get bigger which will mean more opportunities for smaller bespoke agencies – as long as you can create an identity for yourself. I think the medium-sized business whether it is a brand owner or agency probably has the biggest challenge at the moment. They are committed to people and resources but don't necessarily have the level of regular income that big players do.

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What is the single biggest challenge facing the licensing industry in general at the moment?

I think it is ensuring that there is a good supply of licensees that are committed to good NPD, investing in product and backing new opportunities. We can't be a licensing agent without licensees being willing to do business. We have a great base of licensees in the UK but I would like to see a few new members but also a commitment to invest in product, product design and innovation from licensees. In a price conscious retail market it would be easy to slip back into label slapping mentality and to forget that licensing should be an value added business.

How has the industry itself changed since you began working in it?

We now have colour TV ... no I am not that old! Although I do remember getting a colour TV in 1973 in time to watch Princess Anne's wedding day and hosting a few neighbours who didn't have colour TVs.

This shows one of the biggest changes during my licensing career. The rapid evolution of technology and how people consume media. This has made it harder to forecast success and to plan ahead. It has also meant it is harder to achieve critical mass quickly for a new property. There are less water cooler moments. Property owners and in turn agents have to work harder and spend more to support properties. It is no longer a reactive business you have to be more proactive. The level of competition in the UK is intense and it is hard to stand out in the crowd. I think you have to be a longer term thinker, build a licensing programme that is integrated with other activity and genuinely invest in partnerships. I think there hasn't been as much growth in the licensee base as in the licensed rights available - which I think is not great for the industry. I think it wouyld be good to see some 'challenger' licensees coming into the mix - in the same way that brands like Moshi Monsters and Angry Birds have created a buzz in the industry it would be good to see some new licensees doing the same. Thatr's not to say the current crop of licensees are not doing a good job - I just think that there is room for more players in the market.

What trends do you see emerging currently? Both at retail and in terms of wider issues, such as new territories, etc?

I think the emergence of value retailers at retail is a big trend and you see more licensed product in this sector. This may mean a new attitude to NPD, deal making and business relationships. I was saying the other day that in many ways for lots of products Poundland is the new Woolworth's. I think there is the point that properties can come from many different sources now - both business sectors and geographically - this is a big change. There was a point where properties seemed to come from a very narrow set of suppliers. I think there is also a quicker burnout on some properties - I think this is why there is a return to classics - people see the long-term benefits of a property with an established track record. I also think the UK licensing community - licensees in particular needs to wake up and embrace international business. I think there is a real move to multi territory deals and non UK licensees working in the UK. Competition can come from overseas. Equally so can opportunity.

What would you most like to have achieved by the end of 2014?

I think we would like to have added new licensees to our licensee lists and grown the business in retail revenues again. We have done for the last two years. We would like to see more success across the board in the apparel category - I think this is an area we should do better in. We would like to see Dennis & Gnasher well established in the boys licensing sector - it is well on the way to doing so. We would also like to sign up one new brand to represent. It would also be good to see the first Jammie Dodgers licensed products launch. Finally, it would be good to end the year with the reputation of Start Licensing still being one that is regarded as an agency built on integrity, innovation and genuine partnership.

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