From He-Man and Bumblebee to Action Man and RoboCop… David Born lifts the lid on the power of characters

Born Licensing’s David Born on why He-Man has the power to sell… And why licensing characters needn’t be tough.

David Born, thanks for making time! Let’s start off with the obvious questions: who are you? And how did you get into licensing?
You’re welcome; thanks for asking me! I’m the owner and director of Born Licensing. I’ve been in the licensing industry for almost 15 years. Like most people, I kind of just ‘fell in’ to the weird and wonderful world of licensing.

Fell into it is almost like a tick box! I wonder why that is… So where have you worked? And on what kind of thing?
I’m one of the lucky ones who got my first taste of licensing while at Haven Licensing, now Haven Global. Almost instantly, I was hooked! After a few years at Haven, I moved to Warner Bros. to manage their Australian FMCG & Promotions business. Four years later, I moved to London and worked as Head of FMCG & Promotions EMEA for Turner Broadcasting or Cartoon Network. Then I decided to risk it all and start my own licensing agency!

Tell us about that…
While in my previous roles, I had the opportunity to work on a number of projects within the very niche area of licensing IP for advertising campaigns. It was such a fascinating part of the industry… But I didn’t think it was being focused on enough, so I decided to start Born Licensing to focus specifically on that area.

Sorry – just so I can picture it; how long ago is this?
Born Licensing turns seven this year… First opening our doors in Australia, then moving to London 18 months later.

David Born, Born Licensing
Right. And you say “licensing IP for advertising campaigns wasn’t being focused on…” What, specifically, does Born Licensing do?

We represent a range of licensors as it relates to their IP being used in advertising campaigns. We constantly do our best to promote powerful ways to use fictional characters, clips and other IP in advertising. We work with advertising agencies and advertisers across all markets and have launched major campaigns all over the world that have leveraged IP in one way or another.

You recently did a report – and we’ll link to it – to find out why only an estimated 1% of UK advertising features fictional characters. In a nutshell, what did you conclude?
Our new white paper, ‘A Case for Characters’ covers how fictional characters are under-utilised in advertising. Through Ipsos MORI research, we discovered that the UK public ‘most like’ to see fictional characters in advertising compared to celebrities, sports stars and musicians.

The UK public would rather see fictional characters?
Apparently so! However, fictional characters only appear in 1.1% of UK advertising, compared to celebrities, sports stars and musicians who collectively appear in 14.5% of UK advertising.

David Born, Born Licensing
That’s a huge discrepancy…

Yes. The fact is that UK commercials between 2018 and 2020 were 13.4 times more likely to feature a celebrity, sports star or musician than a fictional character. And that fact allowed us to conclude that fictional characters certainly are significantly under-utilised in advertising.

And why is that, do you think? If fictional characters work so well in advertising, why are they so under-utilised?
We cover some of the reasons in the white paper… Ranging from how the advertising industry approaches the licensing of fictional characters in campaigns to how the licensing industry approaches lending their IP for advertising.

Can you give an example of that; one of the main reasons?
One of the main reasons is because the advertising world generally doesn’t have the experience, knowledge, resource, bandwidth or confidence to manage the licensing process. They’re often more comfortable with what they know, which is licensing music and hiring celebrities, sports stars or musicians.

“People are often more comfortable licensing music and hiring celebrities, sports stars or musicians…”

Okay; it’s unfamiliar territory…
We also know from many conversations with agencies that scripts with characters have often been abandoned before they were given a real chance. That’s simply because people didn’t know who to speak to about licensing, what the costs would be or how long it would take.

Another reason why celebrities, sports stars and musicians appear in more advertising is because they have more focused representation. Talent agents appear to be proactively looking for advertising partnership opportunities for their rosters, whereas the licensing industry, I feel, focuses more on traditional licensing categories. They handle advertising opportunities more on a reactive basis.

Presumably, then, you feel the licensors you represent are being smart in seeing clear opportunities here?
Yes, I think that’s fair to say! And the licensors we represent are not only smart to see those opportunities but also to appreciate they may not have the resources available to proactively engage with the advertising community to the extent that’s needed. So, they’ve appointed us to do it for them. As a result, we’ve delivered some incredible campaigns with the characters and IP, resulting in incremental revenue for licensors we represent and significant media value to support their IP.

Well, let me ask you this: what campaigns are out there, do you think, that have nailed it? What can you point to and say, “This is getting it right. This is how it’s done.”?
Shall I start with one that we worked on? Or someone else’s?

David Born, Born Licensing
Let’s start with yours, and then someone else…

Okay. One on which we worked recently was the Direct Line campaign. That’s used the characters Donatello, Bumblebee and RoboCop. Saatchi & Saatchi and Direct Line saw the value in bringing on a licensing expert early, and by doing that we were able to help them explore a raft of suitable characters before landing on the chosen three.

Interesting… How many characters were on the original list?
In fact, we explored around 150 characters. Then we narrowed them down based on budget, timing and creative needs. They got us involved very early on, and really respected our role in the process. That had a huge impact on the development and production, which went a lot smoother because of our involvement throughout.

And what is it about the finished pieces that makes them great examples?
The final spots are so impressive. In terms of production, they’re what you’d expect to see in a cinema… And the stories they tell in just 60 seconds are really extraordinary. This is what happens when you work with an agency like Saatchi & Saatchi, I think. You get brilliant creative, production and account teams that go to all limits to ensure they’re at the highest level they can be. It also has a lot do to with the client, Direct Line, of course. They saw the power that characters could bring to their campaign and fully invested in it.

And what about a campaign you weren’t involved in that nails it?
I was absolutely blown away by the Jeep campaign for the Superbowl last year. It involved Bill Murray reprising his role from Groundhog Day. It was just brilliant, and an incredible achievement from a production standpoint. How they got Bill Murray is nothing short of a miracle, and it clearly won the Superbowl.

Great answer. In terms of that miracle, then, what – in your experience – are some of the challenges associated with producing a campaign around fictional characters?
There’s a big gap between how the advertising world works and how the licensing world works! The advertising world needs to move very quickly in a production. As soon as the client decides they want to proceed, everything is GO, GO, GO!

Right. Straight off the blocks; sprint to the finish…
Exactly. They often want the spot to be live within a very tight timeframe. The licensing industry is more process driven. Of course, some licensors are faster than others, but each has an approval/brand assurance system that ensures all of the key stakeholders have the opportunity to review and feedback.

More like a marathon?
Well… A cross-country run, maybe! And naturally, because advertising campaigns are very creatively driven, that review process can result in differing views. Creative differences can be challenging to navigate, especially considering one side – the advertiser – is wanting to create the most compelling and attention-grabbing campaign possible…

Whereas the licensor…
The licensor is more focused on ensuring their IP is being respected and represented in a way that is ‘on brand’. Compromises are key here, as it’s important the advertiser is putting something out there that they’re happy with. But it’s equally as important that the licensor is comfortable with how their IP is features and that it is still authentic.

“Our report covers seven areas in which changes can be made to see this unique area grow.”

What needs to happen for this area to really grow?
In the report, we cover seven areas in which changes can be made in order to see this unique area grow. They range from how advertisers and brands approach the idea of working with fictional characters to bringing on licensing experts like us early. It also talks about things Rights Holders / Licensors could do, along with expressing the need for further research to take place.

Sounds great; very useful. I’m curious: how is it you can end up equating – say – MoneySuperMarket with He-Man and Skeletor dancing in a bar? Where do you start? What’s the creative process?
I have to admit that we often get credited for the wrong things! The creative ideas that evolve into the amazing advertising we’ve been lucky enough to work on come from brilliantly talented creatives… Not the Born Licensing team.

So you suggest the IP to the right people at the right time, then work to develop the idea with creatives?
Exactly. We present characters and clips we think make a good fit for their brief, but they’re the ones who turn them into what we all see. We like to think that we help the creatives realise their vision though. Without us, navigating their way through the various hurdles and challenges that arise throughout the development and production process would be extremely difficult.

David Born, Born Licensing
Great answer. Tell me, David, what’s next for you?

Although we’ve always focused on the advertising space, Born Licensing has dabbled in consumer products and other innovative licensing areas over the years. In early 2020, we made the decision to move away from anything that isn’t in the advertising space. This is an area we strongly believe we’re the best in the world in, so the answer to your question is ‘nothing different’ and ‘more of the same’.

Nothing wrong with that! You’re specialists…
Yes. We’ll dive deeper into this area, commissioning more research and continuing to carry the torch for licensing IP in the for advertising space. We have the very ambitious goal of wanting to see characters in advertising as much as celebrities, sports stars and musicians. Given what we’ve discovered over the last four months, we have A LOT of work to do!

Superb. We need to wrap this up really, but let me ask: what question have you never been asked in an interview that you’d quite like to answer?
One thing that we like to ask anyone we speak to is “What character would you like to see in an advertisement?”

David Born, Born Licensing
Oh! Gosh; that’s an excellent question!

Right?! Whenever we ask someone this, their face instantly lights up, and they usually come to an answer pretty quickly.

Can I say? I want characters from The Far Side to do quirky adverts!
See how easy that was? Because, almost all the time, people choose a character they grew up with, which really reinforces the power of nostalgia.

Got it.
So that question’s the one I’d actually love to be asked myself… And the answer would be Swift Heart Rabbit from the Care Bears universe. He’s a Care Bear Cousin and was first seen in some of the earlier films and animation series. On the day I was born my Nan gave me a soft toy of Swift Heart Rabbit which I named ‘Bunny’ and he was my favourite toy. I still have him today!

Brilliant. You realise, of course, we’ll want a photo of that?!
I kind of walked into that! I might have a photo of me as a kid with Bunny.

David Born, Born Licensing
Perfect. Listen, it won’t get better than that… Finally, then, what’s the most exciting thing you’ve done for a brand?

I’ve been so lucky to work on so many brilliant ad campaigns. Each of them involves brilliant creativity from really talented people, so each new project is always exciting. I think the most exciting thing is anything that involves a character being at the shoot. Some of the campaigns we work on insert the character in post-production, so anything that involves a character being shot live is incredible.

What’s a good example of that?
A good example is the recent Direct Line campaign. The Donatello and Bumblebee spots involved the characters being developed fully in post-production. But the RoboCop was all live. We had the incredible actor Derek Mears – from Friday the 13th and Swamp Thing – put on the RoboCop suit that had been made specifically for him… And it was really quite spectacular to see it in the flesh.

The same happened with the He-Man and Skeletor campaign with MoneySuperMarket. The suits for both characters were so amazing, and to see them on set was breathtaking. Equally impressive was the Action Man campaign with MoneySuperMarket, which involved a range of stop-motion workstations to capture all the different scenes. It was so impressive! I now appreciate advertising a lot more, because I’ve seen what goes on behind the scenes and the amount of work involved.

Great answers. David, this has been nothing but a pleasure. I want to thank you so much for your time and wish you all the best moving forward. We’ll put a link in to white paper here so people can download it and out more. Thanks again.

David Born, Born Licensing


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