How have Robocop, He-Man and The Muppets helped create one of the fastest-growing companies in the UK?

Business Leader recently interviewed specialist David Born, the Founder, and Director of advertising agency, Born Licensing, to discover the journey of the unique company, and how they have utilised some of the most recognisable characters from TV and films to scale the business.

Founded in 2014, the London-based firm became the world’s only licensing company, specialising solely in globally-known characters IP from the entertainment industry for advertising campaigns.

This year, the company ranked as the 58th fastest-growing company in the FT1000, which compiled data from Statista, and lists European companies that have achieved the highest compound annual growth rate in revenue between 2016 and 2019.

Born Licensing saw a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 168.2% in that timeframe, with an absolute growth rate of 1828.4%. Born Licensing ranks 15th in the UK and last year reported revenues of £2.1m.

But, how does it work?

Born comments: “We help advertising agencies and their clients to license characters, clips and other intellectual property from film, TV, animation and video games for use in their advertising campaigns. Our business model is similar to a talent agent who represents celebrities, but instead we represent some of the most popular characters in entertainment.”

For avid viewers of television, Born Licensing are behind the licensing of Skeletor and He-Man ‘Dirty Dancing’ for; RoboCop, Donatello and Bumblebee each getting their own action-packed ad for Direct Line; The Muppets celebrating the launch of Barclaycard Entertainment, and many more.

Disruptive influence

Before the company came into existence, Born worked extensively within the world of licensing in both Europe and Australia for over eight years.

He was first introduced to the world of licensing while at an Australian licensing agency who represented the likes of Marvel, The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants. His role was within the FMCG and promotions space. He then spent four years at Warner Bros. Australia, again managing FMCG and promotions, working with brands like Scooby-Doo, Looney Tunes, Batman and Harry Potter.

Born then moved to London where he was appointed Head of FMCG & Promotions EMEA for Turner Broadcasting. It was here that the idea for his company first started after a conversation with Volkswagen’s advertising agency.

He said: “They hadn’t had much luck with the rights holders for a major animation, so were thinking about incorporating a generic, unrecognisable clip from a stock footage library instead. They grumbled to me that getting in touch with rights holders was always an extremely difficult thing for them. That was a big light bulb moment, which led to me starting the company.

“While performing in my licensing roles it became clear to me that no rights holder was really focused on the area of licensing their IP out in the advertising space. After further research, I discovered that most rights holders had no resources or systems in place to pursue opportunities in the advertising world. I realised that if I started my own company, I would have the rare opportunity to have a truly unique business, with very few competitors.”

Modernising advertising

So, with a clear goal in mind, Born now had to create an innovative and disruptive company that would challenge the industry.

He continues: “The licensing industry has always been focused on licensing their IP out in traditional consumer product categories such as toys, apparel and publishing. Their systems, relationships, priorities, and focus are on these traditional categories. However, the area of advertising is still not a focus for most rights holders.

“The advertising industry embraces celebrities, sports stars and musicians. However, they don’t really think much about the impact popular fictional characters can have in advertising.”

In fact, if you’re watching an advertisement in the UK, it is 13.4 times more likely to have a celebrity, sports star, or musician in it than a fictional character. That’s despite 38% of the UK saying that they ‘most like’ to see fictional characters in advertising compared to celebrities (22%), musicians (22%) and sports stars (18%), according to a recent Ipsos MORI survey.

“Right now, we are disrupting the advertising industry by raising the profile of using fictional characters in advertising, and demonstrating the benefits compared to celebrities, sports stars and musicians, which is what they’re most familiar with. We are creating a significant shift in how advertisers and their agencies perceive working with characters.”

Challenging beginnings

Despite the company’s recent success, Born Licensing took a few years for its rapid growth to happen. Many new companies face a seemingly never-ending set of hurdles in order to gain momentum – and Born faced these same struggles.

He comments: “When I started the company, I had eight years of experience and a raft of great relationships in the licensing industry, but very little experience or contacts in the advertising industry. As with most entrepreneurs, I was quite naive in thinking that prospects would throw open their doors to have me present my business to them, and that deals would come through very quickly. I imagined that in 12 months the business would be absolutely flying.

“The reality is that in the early days, I had to fight for every single meeting. I learnt quickly that advertising agencies are incredibly busy, and that they are mostly focused strictly on the projects they’re working on right now.

“Any time I was spending to talk to them about licensing characters, clips and IP in advertising was taking them away from urgent work that was piling up. I had to really grind just to get meetings. To make things more difficult, at the beginning, I had no examples of our work or capabilities because we were just getting started.

“I soon discovered that if I was able to get in front of the right people, they would be very interested in what I had to say. They were fascinated by the process involved with licensing characters, clips and IP for their work, and seemed to almost be relieved that there was finally a specialist in this area that could help them.”

Keys to success

In order to overcome those initial challenges, Born took inspiration from many successful entrepreneurs – having a relentless drive and self-belief in what the company was able to offer to the market.

He comments: “I had a number of strategies in place for advertising agencies that wouldn’t meet with me in the early days. Sometimes I would send them a brochure about our company, or I would go over to their office and give something to the front desk to hand to them. On a few occasions, I would go to an advertising industry event and track them down there. Anything to get their attention, because they wouldn’t respond to emails, phone calls or LinkedIn messages! It was relentless hustling in the early days, which I really try to remind myself regularly to ensure I don’t forget that important ‘pounding the pavements’ sales spirit that we all need to hold on to.”

After overcoming the initial challenges of starting a new business, rapid growth presents a whole new dilemma for business owners. So, in order to maintain the levels of growth Born has experienced in recent years, the company has made moves to constantly monitor the industry.

Born explains: “Over the last 12 months, we ran a series of surveys, asking key advertising industry professionals about their views on licensing characters and IP in advertising. The results allowed us to understand the pain points that we need to offer solutions for.

“For example, we learnt that a lot of the time advertising agencies just need quick answers. They’re on such a tight deadline that often they need to know very quickly if the script they’re working on is even feasible. For that reason, we introduced our 24-hour promise, guaranteeing that we will respond and provide guidance within 24 hours of them contacting us.

“Another discovery was how concerned advertising agencies were about being charged for our services at a time where they had no budget signed off. We have now addressed this by offering research and development services free of charge, giving them the reassurance that if they no longer want to pursue the licensing of the character, clip, or IP, then there won’t be any charges from us.

“These and other tweaks we’ve made since reviewing our research has resulted in an increase of leads, which, in turn, has led to business growth.”

Future plans

After achieving an impressive rate of growth, Born has positioned itself as a go-to specialist licensing agent – but how does the company plan to maintain its position in the market?

Born comments: “Our biggest focus is ensuring that we make the lives of advertising agencies, brands and rights holders easier. For advertisers and brands, we must continue to provide a supreme level of service.

“This means further understanding their needs when it comes to licensing IP in advertising and implementing systems to address them.

“For rights holders it’s about bringing them incredible opportunities in the advertising space. Opportunities that we know tick all the boxes needed to get their buy in quickly and wholeheartedly.”

What is next for Born Licensing?

Born concludes: “I strongly believe that we are still at the very early stages of success. By being the go-to company for this unique licensing service and having awareness globally, we have the opportunity to grow to a size much, much bigger than we are today.

“We have proven that our business model works, so the natural next step for us is to scale our offering to other markets. Luckily, many of the characters and IP that we represent have strong awareness and fanbases around the world.

“That means that we can continue working with the same rights holders, and further our successful business with them. We’re also in a great position of having very little competition globally and being global leaders in this space.”