THE BIG INTERVIEW: Neil Ross Russell

He?s been in the job for less than six months, but already Neil Ross Russell, MD of the new-look BBC Worldwide Children?s & Licensing, is making his mark. Samantha Loveday caught up with him at the BBC?s Media Centre to discuss his plans...
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NEIL ROSS Russell considers himself to be a very lucky man: “This is how good this job is,” he tells when we meet up for our interview. “I get to go from talking about a brand like In The Night Garden, which is fantastic, to [talking about] something like Strictly Come Dancing.”

Ross Russell originally arrived at the BBC as a consultant to help with the channel business. Having notched up considerable experience with NBC and before this Sparrowhawk Media, he worked closely with his predecessor, Gill Pritchard. When she left to join Channel 4, he found himself presiding over a major reorganisation, becoming managing director of the new-look BBC Worldwide Licensing & Children’s in September 2008.

“When I arrived and had the period as a consultant, it gave me the opportunity to look at the business from the outside, which was very useful,” Ross Russell explains. “It became apparent that we’re very good in the UK; we have a great platform for our brand, have the right infrastructure in place in terms of relationships with retailers and licensees and have a good scale of brands coming through which are of interest to these people. But, international is still very difficult.

“This is largely because we don’t have the channel, so we’re just another content producer when we go international, plus we haven’t ever really thought strategically about how we can enter a new market and maximise the value of our business across the board. We tended to make either short-term TV sales decisions or short-term merchandise decisions without looking at the bigger picture.”

The changes that Ross Russell put in place had three objectives. The first was to improve the level of focus BBCW put on each individual brand; second was to grow the international infrastructure and start to exploit some of those brands; and third was to promote its licensing capability for its adult properties, rather than just the children’s franchises it had become known for.

A difference has already been made in that the individual brand managers now have a more commercial role. “Their role is very much to create a business plan,” Ross Russell explains, “and this terminology is very important because it is a standalone small business that we are looking at and I need the brand managers to build these.” As well as giving the brand managers more accountability and responsibility for their properties, the aim is to also improve the relationship with the rights owners, as most of the BBC’s brands are with third party rights holders.

“They’re clearly a very important stakeholder for us and we felt they weren’t getting the service they desired,” Ross Russell adds. The new structure also enables BBCW to look at its entire portfolio in a more strategic way and makes it easier to identify what the gaps and opportunities are going forward. As part of this, the firm is also reviewing its current stable of properties and Ross Russell admits that it’s almost inevitable that he will be looking to scale down the size of the portfolio so the team can focus on putting more effort behind a smaller number of brands. “I think we have been guilty of reacting to what comes our way and taking things on that we really haven’t given justice to.”

Brits Abroad
Internationally, Ross Russell has some equally big plans, and the first priority is the US. “We already have BBC America, and that’s given us a great platform for some of the adult brands. Teletubbies is also a very big brand over there and Charlie & Lola is doing very well on Playhouse Disney; so we’ve got some big brands over there but we don’t really have the infrastructure to take advantage of them.

“We’re recruiting what I keep calling a ‘heavy hitter’ licensing person to go and sit in the New York office and really try and open up that American market for us. We’re not going to be beating Disney in a year, but we’ve got some fantastic brands that are well-known and loved in the States and we’re just not getting the mileage we should do out of them.”

And this is definitely a long-term plan for Ross Russell; after the firm is more established in the US, there are some solid other opportunities out there, such as China for example, but he’s under no illusions about the enormity of the task ahead, knowing it will be neither quick or easy.

Future Growth
“The third real objective of the restructure was around the adult brands,” Ross Russell continues. “I think that it wasn’t the case that we weren’t doing them [Doctor Who and Planet Earth being just two examples], but internally and externally as BBC Worldwide Children’s, which was the name of the business, that’s kind of how we were perceived, as a children’s business. The awareness wasn’t there.

“But there’s a lot that we can do. We’ve got a bunch of fantastic brands in the BBC portfolio now – Lonely Planet, Top Gear, etc – but we’ve also got 80 years of legacy brands that have been made in-house by the BBC and nobody’s ever looked at them with a licensing eye. There are some great opportunities in the long-term, but hopefully we can drive some short-term returns for some, too. These are brands which are well known and well loved, but also these are big long-term brands that we can help build.

“Doctor Who is a case in point here,” Ross Russell adds. “2009 is going to be a great year for it, despite there being no show. But the work that we do and the work that other elements of the Doctor Who brand does over the next year will be very important in terms of keeping the brand excitement going and really setting it up for the new Doctor, whoever that might be.”

While Ross Russell and his team certainly have the plans and the vision for how the division can grow, the economic outlet on the High Street might not work in their favour. Ross Russell admits it’s a concern, but also acknowledges that we’re powerless to stop it, and the only thing that BBC Worldwide Licensing & Children’s, and its peers, can do is to keep thinking of new initiatives and ways of expanding the business into new areas.

“There are no end of challenges for the industry as a whole,” he concludes. “[We need] to keep coming up with stuff that excites and engages, which isn’t the sort of overly obvious stuff, and making sure we can secure that retail shelf space.”


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