This week, we’re broadening our Spotlight series, to include key industry figures and clients, sharing their knowledge and thoughts on licensing, trends and technology. We sat down with Character World Brands CEO, James Walker, for his take on the future of licensing and retail and the importance of data, technology, and collaborative relationships:
Thanks so much for speaking with us James. Firstly, I wonder may you tell us a bit about yourself and your background, ahead of your appointment at Character World Brands?
Of course, so, I started my career in buying and merchandising at Marks & Spencer and then similar at British Home Stores. From there, I was approached by Disney to run their Home Consumer Product business. At the time, I didn’t have experience in a big, licensed brand and thought it would be a great shift and experience, different yet complementary to retail.
I covered the UK and then European Home business at Disney. As the world’s number 1 licensor, with multi-billion-dollar CP revenue, there were so many things that happened behind the scenes in many other departments – tracking, royalty reporting, audits – in the category team at the time, my main role was to focus on driving sales of licences and ultimately consumer sales at retail.
It wasn’t until I moved to Hasbro in 2010, running the European Hasbro CP business I really, holistically understood the other, behind the scenes element, that supports running a licensing business. We grew Hasbro EU from 2 offices to 9 offices, I then took on APAC and we opened 7 offices, followed by LATAM, in the end, we had 22 offices across the four regions.
This gives you an insight into the scale and potential fractured data and ways of working I’m sure we’ll dive into.
After dipping (back) into another retail adventure with a post at McArthur Glen, I moved to Xelevated Brands after meeting Andrew, working alongside himself and Garry Gordon, and then finally made the switch over to the licensee side, now, being CEO at Character World Brands.
It’s interesting now, being on the other side of the fence from my time as a licensor. I’m running a business with an incredibly strong 25-year heritage, and we’re on a big growth mission and have an exciting trajectory. Both internally and across the industry things are really moving at a substantial pace, with changes in consumer behaviour, technology advancements, and more.
There’s certainly been a huge evolution in ways of working and the industry as a whole over the past few years. As you alluded to there, what major changes have you seen play out within licensing and retail, throughout your career to date?
I’d say there are three main buckets.
One, a huge shift in the acceptance of and shift towards e-commerce as standard, even without the pandemic, which clearly shifted that needle further.
For example, I remember people would say you could never buy a sofa or something you need to touch, see, or feel, online. Now people are even buying cars online that are delivered to the door, like any other purchase. It’s just totally accepted and normality now.
Secondly, geography and borders for the most part have completely disappeared. If you want something, you can get it, it doesn’t matter where from, it’s opened a whole wave of opportunity for smaller businesses and means that larger corporations need to be looking at channel strategies rather than just territory strategies
Finally, pace and speed to market. To really win now, you need to be quick and agile and have a turnaround speed to keep you tactical, relevant, and front of mind. To do this, you must have data – and accurate data at that – to really power relevant speed to market. Personally, I feel that’s where, for the licensing industry, there perhaps is a missing piece. You usually get data once a quarter in terms of royalty reports, perhaps sooner, but you’re not getting real-time information to be able to act on – where to grow, where to focus, how to change or adapt strategies in real-time. Aside, the late data is also not always accurate or governed due to many different businesses siloed and territory offices, different licensee reporting templates, and more.
I’d say the winners are the ones using – or focusing on bolstering – their data and insight to power their campaigns and strategy.
In thinking about data and technology as that foundation; how do you think technology as whole – as well as specifically our Xelacore technology – can play a vital role in the future of licensing?
It could play a role in speed; so, faster, real-time data being available. And then, importantly, accuracy – so that data that’s coming through, being whole, up to date, and correct. The industry as it stands is understandably fractured, everyone is using their own systems, their own ways of working, their own different reporting and measurements, we need to find a way to move to a governed, regulated system so everyone can be working with the same, accurate, quick and impactful master data.
And then there’s big data, looking at it as a whole. Technology, like Xelacore, is imperative in helping businesses find a trend and see the wood for the trees, see a pattern in reams and reams of data. This can only help to back up, and speed up, creativity and ideation in terms of decision making. Ultimately, ‘knowledge is power’ really does hold true.
One thing I think Fabacus does over any other, is that it’s not simply a software provider, the team and the mission is looking at the industry holistically, everything is connected, everyone is connected in terms of the players in licensing, so why wouldn’t we want to strengthen those connections and make life and business easier and better for everyone?
Ultimately, it’s that cradle to grave solution. Xelacore allows businesses to track licensed products from inception all the way through to the consumer – with fast and agile data available at all stages. It’s solving many issues but, more importantly, a problem I think people don’t necessarily think they have or need a solution for… Time. Time is one of our most precious commodities, in life but especially business, and so any technology that can give that back to us, giving us data and an overview at our fingertips to move forward with business
You spoke there about the different stakeholders within industry, and the value chain stages. Through your experience, is there one main pain point you’ve consistently seen occurring within the licensing industry?
In the end, everyone wants to create great product and get it to consumers – everyone has the same objectives, whether you’re a licensee, licensor, as well as manufacturer or retailer. You want the quickest and simplest way to do that …yet so much time is lost through delays and analysing things that can’t be understood, as there’s no accurate tracking through the process. As it stands, you’re simply not able to dive down layers and layers of data or understanding, and it causes barriers and blockages in the process that are frankly unnecessary.
Truthfully, it’s hard to always be on the same page, mainly because there’s so much inconsistency and different data gathered by different people and business, it almost becomes impossible to be singing from the same hymn sheet, however strong and collaborative the relationship may be.
Additionally, there’s the problem with counterfeit, that’s being exacerbated with the significant shift to online marketplaces. As borders are disappearing, as mentioned before, counterfeiting can seep in further, and it takes so much money and brand perception away from both licensees and licensors. Protecting our brands, as much as it’s a current pain point, it’s something that unifies us in the want for a strategy and process to stop it. Tracking products and using technology such as Xelacore is going to be huge in this regard; it benefits everyone, including the consumer too.
In line with benefits to the consumer as the ultimate end point to the value chain; what do you feel brands could be doing – be that vertical brands or licensed – to provide more value for consumers? Especially as people are coming out of, and going back into, a tough financial year.
Consumers buy brands because of their interest and love for that brand. So much so they want to own it, or at least a part of it, through purchasing a specific product. I’d say anything that IP owners can bake into that purchase, or give consumers as an added plus, is a huge, huge tick and really, a no brainer, it only helps to build a stronger consumer base, and a following and loyalty to your brands, and for little expense.
Some licensors have amazing assets and access, that would mean so much to consumers – and really engage them, beyond the purchase of 1 or 2 products.
One thing that licensing has is the opportunity to really capitalise on that notion. You can’t do that with generic product – as good as it is – with licensing you’re attaching the brand power to a physical, or digital, product; so, what not leverage that further and really engage with your consumers and their love for your IP.
There’s so much opportunity with technology like Xelacore Reach to make it easy and simple for businesses to do this and see huge returns, and consumers be excited and delighted too.
Moving from that, and thinking of the opportunity as you mention – where do you see the industry in the next 5 years? What key changes do you think they’ll be?
I think the evolution of the metaverse will be key – whatever that looks like. Someone is going to win big here, whoever and whatever brand that will be.
It’s clear through social and consumer interaction with web2 platforms and gaming like Fortnite and others opening up the opportunity for getting an online community, that it only makes sense the metaverse will be the next big shift and evolution.
Thinking of this from a licensing and retail perspective, I wonder if it may look like; every physical product you buy you’ll then have a digital equivalent for your avatar.
In essence, everyone needs to be ready – licensee and licensors together, their plans for this shift need to marry up with our current, physical world. We’re seeing it even now with NFTs and the ownership of ‘product’ transferring online through blockchain ownership, and there’ll no doubt be an even further shift.
It’s a great lane for Fabacus to be in and help power the industry through, not just being able to bridge physical with digital but mainly in building the foundation of data to allow us to be able to springboard into these new avenues and strategies; without that solid foundation, there’s no to the minute or accurate insight or data for licensed businesses to be working with, which will be even more key 5 years down the line.
Also, I do just need to say, it’s not all about 1’s and 0’s and data and tech, one thing that will remain from now to then is people and the importance of strong business relationships, collaboration, partnerships, and mutual respect; the Fabacus team understand the industry like no other, they also speak our language, understand our pain points. The people, the intent, the relationships – is all so so so important to the success and credibility of any business, and that will continue to remain true.
Thanks James, what a lovely way to finish, thank you so much for your insights, thoughts and kind words too. It’s been a pleasure and lovely speaking with you.
James Walker is a key licensing figure with a 25-year career in retail, licensing, brands, and digital commerce. He has held global senior management positions at Disney, Hasbro and McArthurGlen and is now CEO of Character World Brands. To hear more from him or to get touch with any questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org