How to license TV icons for ads – by the man behind MoneySuperMarket's Skeletor coup

MoneySuperMarket's sees He-Man and Skeletor dance together

MoneySuperMarket recently premiered a follow up to the #EpicSkeletor campaign that launched in March in what could be described as one of the best pop culture mash-ups in advertising [and conversely one of the most-viewed ads on The Drum this year].

In it we see archenemies He-Man and Skeletor recreate one of the most iconic dance scenes in cinematic history, the (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life sequence from Dirty Dancing.

Within moments of the spot airing #EpicSkeletor was trending across the UK. This epic delivery of nostalgic goodness could not have been achieved without first securing licensing agreements with the appropriate rights holders.

My licensing agency Born Licensing helped orchestrate this mashup and introduced the nostalgic characters back to TV audiences, but I fell into the licensing industry by chance.

At the ripe age of 21 I found myself in a job that I disliked and zero thoughts on the direction I wanted my career to go. I went online and applied for every job that I could. One company called me straight away and I headed to the interview the following day without much in the way of research. As I entered the building I was greeted by an enormous Homer Simpson cardboard cut-out, at reception I stood alongside a giant SpongeBob SquarePants plush toy. Spider-Man, Darth Vader, Mr Happy, Hello Kitty, Bob the Builder... everywhere I looked were characters.

It was a character licensing agency in Melbourne. I had no idea what that actually meant, but that was my entry into the wonderful and wacky world of character licensing, which took me months if not years to truly understand. Since then all I have done is live and breathe characters.

A few years later I made a switch to Warner Bros, from there I moved to Cartoon Network in London where I was head of FMCG and promotions for EMEA where my day job consisted of working with companies like Colgate and McDonalds who wanted to place our owned characters on their products. Star Wars yoghurts, Looney Tunes fruit, Scooby snacks, and Dora the Explorer shampoo just to name a few.

I’ve lost count of how many Happy Meal toys I’ve helped develop

Almost all of the companies I worked with had amazing success with licensing characters. One food manufacturer I worked with sold a product with a popular character on it that stood next to an identical generic version. Same brand, same size, same flavour. The product with the character on it outsold the generic four to one even though it was 20% more expensive.

On rare occasion, a project would land on my desk that involved the use of a film, TV or animation character in an advertising campaign. The first ad that I worked on was with ANZ Bank in Australia. They wanted to use Simon Baker’s character Patrick Jane from The Mentalist. Following that was a leading Australian dairy company that wanted the iconic likeness and thematic elements from Wizard of Oz.

These deals were complex, and were made more complicated by the clash of industries- advertising and licensing.

Advertising is an often-fast-moving business with creative ideas shifting often whereas licensing ismostly a heavily structured business with processes and formalities in place. Both industries have a lot of stakeholders.

In 2014, possibly after binge watching Dragons’ Den, I decided that there was a place in the market for a licensing agency that focused specifically on licensing characters and clips for advertising. I created Born Licensing, fully understood the value that licensing characters from film, TV and animation can bring, and how incredibly powerful it can be. It can add interest, credibility, recognition, familiarity, humour, beauty and shareability to a product or campaign. But there were also challenges and I felt that my involvement would help make the licensing process smoother and less painful for both sides.

I started to reach out to creative agencies across Australia. The feedback was clear and consistent; they wanted to use characters and clips from film, TV and animation but didn't know where to start. Some creative agencies went to the length of telling their creative teams simply not to bother with including characters and clips in their ideas as it would be too difficult, too expensive and too time consuming to sort out the licensing.

My first project came from Melbourne based agency T20 Group. They had developed an idea for their client Simonds Homes, a leading Australian home builder, that involved the creation of a bespoke Transformer made out of building material and home products. I already had a strong relationship with Hasbro, the rights holders of Transformers, so I presented the opportunity to them and they were interested. We negotiated the terms of the deal, managed the approval process and months later the campaign premiered on AFL Grand Final day, one of the biggest advertising days of the year in Australia.

Following that was a call from Sydney based agency Disciple, who had developed an engaging script for their client Subaru. It was all about ‘doing something out of the box’, where an action figure would come to life and experience the joy of being out of his original packaging. They needed a well-known action figure, and once again I approached Hasbro to secure the rights to use arguably the most iconic action figure of all time – G.I. Joe. We arranged for some original G.I. Joe action figures to be sent from a collector in USA to Sydney for the shoot, and crossed our fingers that they would be returned in pristine condition (they were). A licensing deal was signed and the campaign was very well received.

We had proven that there was an appetite to use characters in ads so in 2016 the company moved to London to better service the European market. Since then we’ve worked on a number of campaigns for brands like MoneySuperMarket, Instagram, T-Mobile, Tesco, KFC and Comic Relief.

How to secure classic characters for your campaign

There are a few areas that one must be aware of if they want to go down the path of licensing a character for their campaign.

In order to get a quick response, you need to know the right people at the right place. You will have no luck phoning a rights holder’s reception and trying to explain that you’re wanting to place their character in your ad campaign. They’ll likely ask you to email a generic email address that will go unanswered for weeks if not months.

Some may think that signing a licensing deal and paying a licensing fee entitles them to unlimited access and use of a character. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A licensing agreement is usually incredibly specific, with very clear parameters of what can and can’t be done.

Never assume that a rights holder will say no

No two rights holders are the same. Each has their own internal processes, contract templates, approval systems, fee structures and overall way of handling these projects. Schedule accordingly. Some licensors can move quickly, some slower than you can possibly imagine. The more time you allow for them to work through things on their end, the smoother and less panicked the process will be.

Be realistic with how a rights holder is going to allow their characters to be licensed. It’s important to remember that film, TV and animation characters can be worth billions in global annual revenue when you add up the box office, home entertainment, consumer product licensing, digital, gaming, publishing... and the list goes on. Intellectual property is incredibly valuable to their rights holders, and it’s their responsibility to ensure it stays that way.

Engage with the rights holder as early as possible. Don’t wait until the script has been sold in to the client before starting negotiations.

Try and be flexible creatively. I know it isn’t always possible, but it’s much easier to work with a script that includes an iconic evil villain compared to a script that has been specifically developed for Darth Vader.

Lastly (and most importantly) never assume that a rights holder will say no. Most of the time they love to see their characters used creatively, providing that the overall campaign keeps within the spirit of their brand.

David Born has been in the world of character licensing for over 10 years. He has held senior positions at Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network, runs Born Licensing.

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