When He-Man and Skeletor showed the world their moves, Dirty Dancing style, for MoneySuperMarket, that was a moment. You might not have thought it at the time, but in a decade that’s leant on nostalgia more and more heavily - as the world of the here and now got more depressing - it was a perfect distillation of the escapism to ‘simpler times’ that pop culture can provide. Many working in advertising will look at that moment and dream up a fantasy wish list of cultural and fictional figures they’d love to hook their clients up with.
The message from David Born - one of the people who made that legendary moment happen - to those dreamers is that it needn’t be a dream. The characters you and your client’s customers love are available. Their diaries are open and they’re more affordable than you might expect, especially if you talk to the right people, like the brands and rights holders that Born Licensing deals with every day.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with David to clear up exactly how people in advertising can make those dream pairings come true, and what considerations are most important in the process.
LBB> What are the biggest benefits of licensing fictional characters for advertising?
David> Although this specific area is largely lacking in effectiveness research, having worked on so many projects in my time I’ve been able to see first-hand the benefits advertisers can experience when incorporating well-known characters into their campaigns.
One of the more instant benefits is cut-through. Consumers are in more control than ever before when it comes to how (and sometimes if) they engage with certain advertising. Although we’re exposed to thousands of advertisements daily, we have the ability to mute, skip, walk out of the room, put down our phones, look at another device or find another way to simply not absorb the message of an ad. Licensing fictional characters can be an effective tool for advertisers to overcome this challenge.
An advertisement is likely to capture the attention of a consumer if they see a fictional character that they recognise and already have a connection with. In an extremely cluttered environment, characters can cut through to accessible memories and tap into existing awareness, allowing advertisers to emotionally target and engage with consumers in a way that can’t be done with most other marketing approaches.
Not only do they capture attention, they also often result in consumers sharing their thoughts on social media and with the people in their lives. After launching a campaign with a fictional character, we always find people sharing the spot and discussing it online. For example, the MoneySuperMarket campaign which licensed characters He-Man and Skeletor dancing to Dirty Dancing generated over 35,000 tweets an hour at its peak. It was trending across three different hashtags on the night of launch and for months generated online conversation and sharing.
That campaign went so viral that even my partner's mother in Brazil had seen it on the news over there. Even though it was only a UK campaign, it was a worldwide hit!
In addition to the short-term benefits of capturing attention and diving into strong positive memories, there are long term benefits too. Advertisers that feature fictional characters successfully for a longer period across multiple campaigns can experience the character becoming a strong addition to their brand codes. They now have a strongly identifiable personality attached to their brand, which consumers recognise and associate with that brand.
Just like the power of tying a celebrity to a brand over the long term (i.e. George Clooney x Nespresso), fictional characters can have the same long-term positive impact.
The added benefit is that fictional characters don’t come with the risk that can be attached to celebrities, which can create a problem for the brand. SpongeBob SquarePants or Peppa Pig are unlikely to get caught up in a scandal which will negatively impact the brand. Fictional characters bring with them brand equity of which is almost always positive, without the risk of drama and misdemeanours.
LBB> What do agencies usually want when they come to you?
David> Agencies approach us at variable stages of the development process. If they approach us early, which we really encourage them to do, they’ll have a brief for us to review and we’ll provide them with some guidance. If they approach us late, typically a script will be pretty far developed and they will already have a very specific character the script has been written around. In those scenarios we’ll try our best to get them a license for that particular character while also thinking about alternatives that could also work in the scenario their preferred character is not feasible.
For example, we worked with Ogilvy London for the British Airways centenary campaign and they had their heart set on Winnie the Pooh. Although we were able to convince Disney to proceed with the campaign, we had a number of other characters on standby that suited the brief.
We tell agencies to come to us as early on in the process as possible, which allows us to work on feasible solutions before their client falls in love with it.
A great example is our recent work with Saatchi & Saatchi London for Direct Line. They cleverly came to us very early on in the process with the ‘We’re On It’ concept, which centred around Direct Line beating famous fictional heroes to solve problems. We took the brief and developed a list of over 150 suitable characters for them to consider. Over a number of months the list was reduced to just three; Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bumblebee from the Transformers franchise and RoboCop.
These three characters are instantly recognisable, liked across generations and each played heroic roles in a catalogue of content across film, TV, publishing and gaming.
Critically, having worked with the rights holders of these characters many times before, we knew that ViacomCBS, Hasbro and MGM would be comfortable with the creative approach as well as the proposed usage terms. On top of that, we knew we could work with the licensing budget on the table.
Saatchi & Saatchi really appreciated having us as their one contact to manage the licensing across the three rights holders. As a bonus, we are licensing agents for each ViacomCBS, Hasbro and MGM so we didn’t charge any clearance fees. Our unique business model ensures that there are no third party costs to the licensing process, freeing up budget for other areas of the production.
When we work on a project we fully take over all aspects of the licensing process, from research and development, negotiation, approvals, the contract process, invoicing and everything else that arises. By taking what can be a tedious and resource heavy process off their plate, the agency and client can focus their attention on the rest of the campaign.
We also make ourselves available to attend the shoot as a resource on the ground for anything related to the characters that may come up during production.
LBB> What misconceptions do you most often come up against that you'd like to dispel?
David> We’ve been working really hard at raising the profile of licensing characters in advertising. Part of that has been doing our best to let the advertising world know that characters are available, and most rights holders are willing to lend them for advertising.
When we engage with an advertising agency for the first time, often they’ll tell us about a time they had written a fictional character into a script, only to find that they didn’t know where to start with the licensing process. Some creative teams had been encouraged to never write fictional characters into scripts again and stick to celebrities which is a path more travelled and familiar.
Some assume that the creative will be too wild or ‘off brand’ to get approved by the rights holder, the licensing will be too expensive or that the approval process will prevent deadlines from being met.
LBB> And how would you respond to those?
David> The misconceptions are certainly understandable and what makes things a bit trickier is that there isn’t one rule when it comes to licensing. Rights holders vary greatly as it relates to fees, processes, how they allow their character to be used, how quickly they move and how many stakeholders need to be involved with these processes.
The first thing to note is that the licensing industry is all about WHO you know, and WHAT you know. Knowing the right people in the licensing industry, knowing what motivates them and how they like to work, as well as knowing what parameters they set out for their characters, means that we have a better chance at getting something over the line within budget and on time. With the strong relationships we have in place with the right people in the licensing industry, we are able to move the needle quicker.
We often get asked ‘how on earth did you manage to get Skeletor and He-Man to dance to Dirty Dancing’? It was simply knowing the right people and what motivates them. The same goes for the Action Man spot, which was hilarious, but there were some elements I’m almost certain wouldn’t have been approved if we hadn’t explained the creative vision in the way the rights holders of that character would appreciate.
Agencies are right to think that some characters are going to be difficult or impossible to license within their budget and timing. However, if a brief is shared with us, we can almost always find a substitute that achieves what is needed creatively and sometimes is an even better fit in the long run.
It's important for all of these preconceptions to be dismissed. Depending on the rights holder, licensing fees can be negotiated and often they’ll make accommodations where they can if they really like the project. The approval process can be a challenge with the variety of stakeholders involved, but when managed carefully can be worked through to ensure deadlines are met. And rights holders are much more open to lend their characters to advertisers than some may think. You just have to be working with the right people.
LBB> What's your favourite ever licensing masterstroke and why?
David> It’s very difficult to look past the MoneySuperMarket campaign with Skeletor and He-Man dancing to Dirty Dancing. It was probably the most epic pop culture mash up in British advertising history, giving anyone who was around in the ‘80s a serious high on nostalgia. This one really put us on the map. As a new company with quite a niche expertise, we struggled a bit initially to unpack what we do and how we could help agencies. ‘Elevator pitches’ were a bit tricky. But once this campaign launched, we were able to say to anyone based in the UK that we had been responsible for the licensing of He-Man & Skeletor and Dirty Dancing for the MoneySuperMarket spots. Straight away their faces would light up with a smile – everyone had seen and loved that ad! Then they would instantly know what we’re experts in, and how we could help them.
I previously mentioned that I had the pleasure of working with Direct Line and Saatchi & Saatchi on their ‘We’re On It’ campaign. This was certainly the biggest project we had ever worked on because it involved a lot of material, particularly three incredible 60-second spots. With three characters and three different rights holders, it was our main focus for many months. We love this campaign because we lived and breathed it for a period of time, but also because it was just so creative and clever. The way they used the characters was so well done, and the production values were so impressive. I went to the shoot in Cape Town and it was so great to see the agency, production teams and the incredible director doing what they do best.
LBB> What are some more unusual ways people have used your services?
David> The most unusual approach we get is when an agency wants advice on how they can reference a character, TV show or film without having to pay for a license. Often, they’re just looking for advice on how risky we think it might be. We aren’t a legal firm and we don’t offer legal advice, so our response is always the same: we can help you get a license if you want one, but if you don’t get a license we would strongly encourage you to remove it from the script or material. It’s just too risky. You don’t want one of the major entertainment studios coming after you or your client seeking damages for using their intellectual property without their permission. The most responsible solutions are to a) get a license or b) take it out of the script. There are some quite well-known court cases with entertainment studios suing advertisers who used their IP without their permission, they can get quite messy! It’s the last thing anyone wants to be involved with, so should really be avoided at all costs!