THE BIG INTERVIEW: Tom Keefer, SVP Global Licensing, BBC Worldwide

Doctor Who, Night Garden and making it in America.
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“For us, Licensing International represents a real stake in the ground in terms of BBC’s presence in North America. It’s going to be a really eventful week for us.”

At last year’s Vegas show, Tom Keefer was still getting to grips with his new role as SVP of global licensing for BBC Worldwide. A year later, it’s clear he’s relaxed into his position, and he’s keen to show just how far the firm has come in terms of licensing in the US market in 12 months.

“It’s been an incredibly exciting time for us in the US,” he tells “When we secured the North American distribution rights across all of Ragdoll’s properties, including the Teletubbies and In The Night Garden, it brought fantastic opportunities for us. We’ve been managing these properties elsewhere in the world for some years so understand exactly how they work, and are confident that they’ll be well received by audiences in the American market.”

Indeed, ITNG is already doing well in Canada, and will likely make its US debut next year. On top of this, there is strong interest for Charlie and Lola from the territory and Playhouse Disney will air 3rd & Bird from January 2011, while the BBC’s natural history brands are proving very popular. Building on the foundation of Planet Earth, the firm has launched the BBC Earth brand, which includes Life, plus future natural history programmes such as Human Planet and Frozen Planet. In fact, BBC’s adult properties are a major focus going forward.

“We’re very excited about Doctor Who,” enthuses Keefer. “The new series has allowed us to reach a much broader audience than ever before and the recent US launch was a record success, serving as a strong foundation for our licensing programme. Top Gear and Life are continuing apace; we’re preparing for Top Gear to take on a second US platform, being broadcast with American presenters on the HISTORY channel later this year.”

Keefer readily admits that the BBC is lucky that its brands are already very much established, having been tried and tested on an international level. Something which seems to have stood it in good stead over a turbulent past 12 months at retail level. “We all know that the industry’s faced some real economic challenges in the past year and most companies have been reluctant to take risks. Of course, some companies have invested in the face of this adversity. Take for example Toys R Us, which acquired struggling retailers like KB Toys and recently posted very strong financial results.

“We’ve shown steady growth throughout recent years and, in light of the number of our new properties coming to the US, we’re confident that we’ll continue to do so.”

Despite this, Keefer believes that the industry mood currently is just “guardedly optimistic”. “We’re still facing a serious unemployment reality check. It’s hard to be optimistic about the future if you are still seeking work, so retailers and licensees are cognizant of consumers seeking greater value for money.

“Retailers are under pressure to deliver profits, as well as a differentiation of product for their customers, so direct to retail initiatives are vital going forward. It’s also become increasingly important to secure a retail home for brands. It’s increasingly common to engage with retailers to determine retail strategies before even presenting to licensees.”

Ultimately, says Keefer, the economy is still fragile and recovery may take longer than expected.

“Shelf space is at a premium too and there are only so many properties that can be placed. We are focused on offering differentiation, margin and innovation in product which will help create our reason to exist on the shelf and to be compelling to consumers.

“Candidly, we are uniquely poised to build a bigger and more meaningful presence in the US market, given our powerful portfolio of brands and the increased drive behind them.”

Industry-wide growth, meanwhile, can be achieved by evolving the business model. “The basic business model will continue to evolve in how products are brought to retail, with a growing focus on alignment with retailer needs and consumer demand. At BBC Worldwide, we’ve developed a team ready to provide innovative solutions to address this changing retail landscape.

“My goal is to assemble a world class licensing organisation here in the US to complement our already strong UK and international-based teams,” Keefer continues. “We are putting a much greater emphasis on our retail initiatives, which we believe allow us to organically grow our existing business and jumpstart our growing US revenue.”


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