Licensing chatter: 10 questions with Start Licensing’s Ian Downes

Published on: 30th March 2020

In these unprecedented times for the global community, it’s nice to keep connected – and for an industry as reliant on peer to peer networking as the licensing business, maintaining those connections with our industry colleagues is paramount. That’ why is kicking off a new series of interviews to get to know a bit more about the people driving it forward.

In our first Licensing Chatter interview series, we talk with the licensing industry personality and founder of Start Licensing, Ian Downes.

Hello Ian, good to chat. To kick us off, can you tell us how you got into the licensing business, how did this all begin for you?

My path to the licensing industry was via the publishing world. I started my working life in the advertising industry as a TV Time buyer and from there moved into the publishing world. I worked for a company called Marshall Cavendish who published part-work magazines. I was asked to investigate a few TV programmes with a view to Marshall Cavendish licensing them. That was how I first connected with licensing.

Not long afterwards I joined Copyright Promotions to co-manage their publishing business and worked on properties like Star Wars, The X Files, Mr Men, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Deals I did included managing Sonic the Comic, licensing The X Files Book of the Unexplained which became a best seller and managing things like the Star Wars graphic novel programme. I also dressed up as Mr Happy.

We’ll have to get our hands on some of those pictures. So, what have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the space over that time?

I would say the level of competition. When I started there were far fewer licenses available to buy and far fewer people selling licenses. Over the 28 years I have worked in licensing there hasn’t been a similar growth in licensees so we have a situation where I think supply outstrips demand.

Of course there have been other significant changes including more rights holders managing their own brands – when I started out we represented the likes of Hasbro, Lucasfilm and Universal. There has also been dramatic changes in the TV market and the range of media platforms that are in the market.

I would say there have been other changes not least in the size and shape of retail. Companies like Woolworths have gone by the wayside whilst the likes of Amazon have developed into retail giants.

You’re a name synonymous with the licensing industry, but what has been the proudest moment of your career to date?

I guess for me it was winning the Lifetime Achievement Award at the UK Licensing Awards a few years ago. It was a lovely recognition of my career and contribution to the industry. It was unexpected but very welcome. Of course I have been lucky to work with and for a lot of great people who helped me achieve that recognition.

Licensing is a community and I guess it is lovely to know you have the respect of your industry peers. I am also proud that I have been able to help other people. I have enjoyed mentoring people and it is good to see the next generation of licensing professionals making headway in their careers.

Have you got a favourite licensing deal/partnership on the CV – what makes it stand out for you?

I am always pleased with deals that have started with a cold call. I am a great believer in creating new business opportunities. A recent example is with Shaun the Sheep and Primus. I cold called them a couple of years ago and talked to them about licensing. They hadn’t considered licensing before but 12 months later they were launching a Shaun the Sheep metal garden sculpture at GLEE at the NEC.

It is lovely to see new companies coming on board and finding success. Likewise I am very proud of helping develop a Roy of the Rovers Exhibition at the National Football Museum. It seemed like a fitting venue to celebrate Roy’s life and it was very satisfying to help make this happen.

I loved working with Dr Martens with The Beano as I was a big DMs fan and I also enjoyed working with artists such as Sir Peter Blake and Horace Panter on licensed ranges. Recently it was great to meet street artist Cheo who we are working with on Wallace & Gromit. I am a big fan of street art so I enjoyed meeting Cheo.

The other deal that really stands out for me is The X Files Book of the Unexplained. This was a couple of books tied into The X Files series. The idea behind the books was mine. I found the publisher and helped get the books done. They were both best sellers and it was a great game-changer for me in my career not least as it confirmed that it is sensible to look at creating and generating business through your own original ideas.

What are some of the biggest hurdles the licensing business is facing at the moment?

Obviously we are all in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and I think none of us are really sure what the short, medium and long term impact will be on the licensing business. Putting this to one side for the moment and talking more generally I think there is a real challenge in spreading the word about licensing and highlighting the benefits of licensing to new companies and sectors.

I think if licensing is to survive and thrive we need to engage with new companies more regularly and develop more of an industry credentials’ approach to demonstrate licensing works. I think in some cases the value of good quality IP has been eroded and has become a commodity to trade.

I think we need to remember the value and appeal of good IP and how it can work commercially. Connected to this I think we also need to be a little more circumspect about which properties are being brought to market. I am not sure there is room for all properties and in some cases some properties do not really hold significant potential.  I think we need where we can to think long-term and build proper campaigns for properties with a philosophy of nurturing partnerships.

What conversation do you think the industry needs to be having right now?

There are a lot and, of course, many conversations will be driven by the current situation in the market. I suspect these will be about contractual obligations, scheduling of payments and extending deals. I think we all have to have an open dialogue about things and try to find a compromise that works for all concerned parties.

I would say here it is important to remember that Licensors and Agents are part of the licensing economy and have businesses to run as well. Often companies will have a wider work force beyond the licensing team who in part rely on licensing revenues. It is important that any conversation is one built on the principle of partnership and mutuality.

I also think we need to be thinking about how do we kickstart the licensing economy with new deals, fresh ideas and initiatives. I think it is sensible to be thinking ahead and developing ideas that might be capable of coming to market quickly. I think areas that Licensors and Agents could also be looking at are quicker approvals, slicker administration and marketing support.

Beyond this I think the industry needs to keep thinking about the people working in it and be mindful of developing a career path for people. I think we need to be developing the notion that licensing is a career and has a career path for people. I think companies are a lot better at this side of things these days but we need to work on talent retention and personnel development.

Retail is one of the biggest topics of talk at the moment – what do you think the future relationship between retail and licensing looks like?

I think we will see more cases of retailers, licensees and licensors working together to curate and develop product ranges that have an element of exclusivity about them. A well developed and well established licensed property should be delivering a specific audience and creating a particular connection with consumers.

I think we need to develop that further and in the context of retail use it in a way that helps retailers build store traffic and sales in a way that gives them a competitive advantage. I think this needs to move from just being about price. I think there is scope to engender and develop loyalty through licensing.

I also think there is a lot to be achieved in online retail coupled with pop up retail and some very specific product categories such as personalised products. I also think we should be looking at all aspects of retail including higher end retail. Licensing and licensed brands can work in different parts of the retail market as long as they have an appeal to consumers and that appeal is turned into attractive products or services.

I expect to see licensing playing more of a role in promotions and advertising around retail. Last year Aardman worked with DFS and Joules with Wallace & Gromit on retail promotions. Licensing can add value, deliver a point of difference, and create a competitive edge. I think we shouldn’t short change ourselves.

What would be your dream brand to work with or licensing deal to establish?

Tough question. I love working with the brands we represent already.

However as I mentioned I am great lover of street art so I would love to work with a collection of street artists and develop licensing programmes with them. Ideally I would like to do something like this that is linked to a charity that helps youngsters from inner cities develop their careers and connect with career opportunities.

As someone who grew up in South London it saddens me to see and hear what happens from time to time there these days. I would like to be involved in a licensing programme that might help raise funds for an initiative like this. I am working on a pro bono basis with Stuart Lawrence at the moment. Stuart is a trustee of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and is Stephen’s younger brother. He is doing a lot of great work in schools. I am helping Stuart find publishers and commercial partners. I think we may have found a publisher for a children’s book written by Stuart – I think I will be very satisfied if this happens.

What then Ian, would you say is the best part of your job?

I think it is having the opportunity to think creatively and to see those creative ideas realised in a commercial way. Licensing is an industry that has a set way of working but it is also one that embraces fresh and original thinking. We shouldn’t lose sight that it is an entrepreneurial business as well. You can move quickly and make things happen.

Of course I also love the people in the industry. I have made lifelong friends in the industry and not too many enemies. I think it is a friendly business and one that I am glad that I found all those years ago.

Finally, what advice would you give to anyone starting out their career in licensing?

I think the key thing is to be yourself. Develop your own style and approach to doing business but remain honest at all times. I think people appreciate openness and honesty coupled with consistency. I think you should feel able to explain your decisions and choices if you need to.

It is also important to share things with colleagues and friends. Don’t fester on something. It has probably happened before and there is always a resolution. Don’t be afraid of stepping forward and suggesting ideas.

Also in today’s world still place a value in getting out: go to meet people, visit shops, look at products from other sectors, visit trade fairs and research your category. I am always happy to chat to people and I know that is the same for other people. Get yourself involved in the industry and build a network of industry friends.


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