With the proliferation of online retail outlets and a heightened brand awareness amongst consumers, the competition for brands and designers is hot. When it comes to fashion and design, knowing how to stand out from the crowd and catch the attention of multiple retailers has changed drastically over the last decade.
Gavin Foster, Director of Licensing and Brand Extensions at entertainment marketing agency ITB works with some of the world’s biggest names in fashion, including Karl Lagerfeld, House of Holland and Giles Deacon. We sit down with him to find out how his unique model is challenging traditional licencing methodology and changing the landscape for fashion and retail partnerships.
Q> How do you define the traditional licencing model?
Gavin Foster> Traditionally, a licencing agent will sign an individual or a brand and attempt to establish new product categories the brand or talent is yet to explore. The only problem with this is that there are now a huge amount of brands out there to compete with and it’s hard to establish new categories from scratch without a lot of prior investment. What’s more, manufacturers have tighter budgets and aren’t as willing to invest in launching new developments unless the brand has an extensive global presence.
Q> So tell us how your approach differs at ITB, what’s different about it?
GF> We work very closely with retailers in order to gain more insight into what’s working and what isn’t. We have a more strategic approach with our clients by launching with one category into a retailer, building on it and layering additional categories as and when the need is there. We do this because if you just box-tick categories and the product doesn’t get sold, it goes into clearance outlets and before you know it, the brand has been damaged. You need to maintain control over the process. We bring in a retail partner early to secure the interest of potential licensee’s. As new licencees come to life, we co-ordinate and share distribution contacts across the board so that the brand is sold through the same retail channels. This way the consumer can find an entire brand story in the same place.
Q> How does that work in practice?
GF> As an example, when fashion designer Amanda Wakeley came to us, she had been trading around 25 years in London, serving the Harvey Nichols price point. She wanted to know how we could assist her in developing a more commercially viable range of products. At the time, she was making her own cashmere, evening gowns and very high-end leather goods. Having established the best route to market is speaking with a retailer and understanding their desire, ambition and what they think could be applicable for the brand you are bringing to them, we took Amanda to QVC. They’re an amazing retailer. I’d met them whilst working as a business director in northern Europe. We’ve observed the likes of Lulu Guinness who sells on QVC with huge success. The reason designers can be so successful through QVC is because they have the opportunity to sell their story and their brand. If you took a product to a department store, in the first instance, it is often placed on a shelf with many other similar competitive products. QVC offers a brand owner the opportunity to sell themselves, product and story.
We partnered Amanda with a leather goods manufacturer. They acquired the license rights to develop a range of Amanda Wakeley leather goods which ITB took to QVC directly. It was an entirely new model and it has opened up a whole new way of working for us. We represented Amanda as her licensing agent but because of our relationship with the retailer, we also manage the wholesale on behalf of the manufacturer.
Q> Why did you go into wholesaling?
GF> The benefit of working on the wholesale side is that we have a direct insight into what the retailer needs. We can feed that information back to the manufacturing partner, as well as our client. That way we can tailor-make a product the retailer or consumer wants more of. The wholesale arm came about because it’s becoming more and more difficult to establish license partners with brands - unless you have a retail home for it. It made sense that we should be wholesaling our goods our license partners were making. We’ve had huge success following the year we have spent selling Amanda’s products through QVC. We wouldn’t get the same kind of return going direct to a department store. We’re now using the same model we used with Amanda and leather goods for developing home fragrance, jewellery, watches, eye-wear and more. We’re also now following suit with some of our other clients. Based on the success of QVC, interest from additional retailers is then established, it’s a Halo Effect.
Q> How do you then grow the client’s brand outside of QVC?
GF> Using the strategy where the home is QVC, we can build our client’s brand awareness because they’re talking about themselves and selling the goods. QVC only buy a limited number of products and when the consumer can’t find it there, they look in the department stores and on the high street.
Q> Why do you think this model is working so well right now? Are there any cultural or economical factors playing in to this?
GF> There’s a lot of uncertainty in the retail market and customers are buying differently. Most are buying online or looking at new avenues of purchasing. QVC appears to be the retailer who is going against the grain, it’s growing year on year. Customers like the storytelling element of what they’re buying – direct to consumer selling.
In general, consumer buying habits are changing quite a lot, more people are becoming brand loyal. They want to buy everything in one place. Traditionally department stores have separated products by department. Now, people are buying brands and they want to see a designer’s collection in one place – hence the success of online and TV sales. For example, someone buying an Orla Kiely cushion may want Orla Kiely curtains, candle or watch. Typically in retail they would have to go to different areas of a store to find those items.
Q> Your licencing clients are mostly fashion or design based. Is it important for your client base to complement each other for this model to work?
GF> Yes, we actively seek out clients who offer something different from each other – you can’t have three people doing the same job. Our main criterion is that they have to have an identity that can be spoken about and can translate into different product catagories.
Q> Are any other talent agencies doing what ITB are doing?
GF> I’m not aware of any other agency who are working with the same brand build strategy we are.
Q> What’s your day to day work like?
GF> At the moment we’re undertaking a lot of development for our new signings. We do frequent development meetings and we try to work closely with our instigating retail partners to get new product developments and launches right.