GC: I’ve known you for so long and always admired your professionalism, but we’ve never had a chance to visit one on one. Where did you go to school?
LB: I went to Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and I was an English major.
GC: How did you get into the business of licensing?
LB: My first job out of college was at United Media and my then neighbor Mike Georgopolis was the head of licensing.
GC: You were lucky to get him as your first boss. He is the best. What was your title when you worked for Michael?
LB: I was an assistant and my first job paid US$12,000 a year. I was offered another job the same week as a desk assistant at the Wall Street Journal for US$8,000 a year. So I really thought I was in the big leagues when I took the job at United Media.
GC: I hate to ask you what year that was…
LB: It was 1980.
GC: How long did you stay at United Media?
LB: I was there for 12 years and moved up rapidly. I had a great run there and learned a lot about the business from Mike and people like Lee Mendelson and Charles Schultz and M. Davis. It was a great place to be in those days, at the height of Snoopy and the Smurfs were just starting to take off. My first deal involved the Love Is license and my first business trip was to the Bahamas. I thought ‘I’m going to like this licensing business.’
GC: I had the Love Is school supplies license. Not a bad job, starting off and then going to the Bahamas.
LB: My first big deal involved Teleflora, a deal that I struck with Linda Resnick, who at the time was the president of Teleflora. That was very early on in my tenure. It was pretty incredible and exciting. I worked on it from idea inception to pitching it, to making it happen.
GC: That was a Love Is/Teleflora deal?
GC: What were royalty rates for character and entertainment properties in the early 80s?
LB: I think they were probably 7% or 8%.
GC: I think so, too. People today wouldn’t even understand those numbers, but like everything else, things change and people move on.
What do you remember most about your first job in licensing?
LB: I would say meeting [Peanuts creator] Charles Schultz. And within six months of graduating from college, I had a meeting with him. I was in charge of Snoopy’s personal appearance program in department stores and I had to figure out how to get the costumes made and approved by Mr. Schultz. I got to spend time with him and get my picture taken with him and he did a drawing for my brother.
GC: Well he may be one of the classiest people in the world, let alone in licensing and animation. He wrote the book, didn’t he? Kind of set the pace for everyone?
L: It’s hard to talk about him without talking about Connie Boucher. I felt like meeting her and learning from her about the importance of the product, product development process and the blending of the creative and the commercial was a highlight of my career. I remember we had a big licensee meeting at the Essex House and had licensee breakout sessions and I got to work with her on a product development seminar workshop with our licensees who came in from all around the world. And it was just amazing. I got to work with some of the big names.
GC: I have to add something about Connie Boucher. There are two people who are most influenced my career in licensing the most; one is Tom Brooks, who I’m sure you remember and Connie Boucher who knew more about product, who knew more about merchandizing than anyone that I ever met. She was remarkable.
LB: She was remarkable a globe trotter also. She was one of the first women, but also probably one of the first manufacturers to do what she did in Japan and went to Korea and ultimately to China. All of those people I just felt were before their time in some ways and just really great role models and people that just admired very much.
GC: Let me ask you a couple questions about the licensing business in general. What excites you most about being in the licensing business?
LB: What excites me most, I think, is the creativity of it. I also think that in some ways the randomness and ‘out of left field’ aspects of it, as well. What is it that makes a property fly or not? I think that we always try to learn from the successes and the failures. But, at the end of the day, it is a hit business and it’s one where you have that extra something that is either there or not – and I get a kick out of that because I would be the first person to say that I didn’t think SpongeBob was merchandisable when I first saw it.
GC: That says alot about well-managed marketing programs. What comes first the property or the marketing and management of the property?
LB: It is absolutely the property.
GC: Let’s go back to what excites you about the business, what keeps your job fresh and interesting?
LB: I find the networking does. But also the mentoring part of the business is so critical, as you would no doubt agree. It’s something that I spend a lot of time focused on here with my team. I also think going to stores keeps it interesting. I read a lot and go to the movies. Staying active in pop culture is how you keep your job interesting, because the more informed you are and the more you have a finger on the pulse of what is going on in this rapidly changing society, the better you can be at your job.
GC: You go to stores, follow pop culture and read papers – you’re out there. And you have children the age of our customers. Do you see any trends? I know the increasing importance of the retailer is a key trend, but what others do you see?
LB: I was kind of looking more über and I thought global technology, multi-platform and multi-ethnic. But then I also think that as the pendulum swings very strongly to the right on the technology front, I also then see traditional as well…something like the SpongeBob Monopoly game doing as well as it has [shows there's room for tradition]. I think technology is the Ying, and traditional is the Yang. Definitely multi-platform, multi-screen and multi-ethnic. The world looks different, especially in the U.S… and I think that is a huge trend that affects everything – marketing, properties and who your customer is.
GC: Well said. Is there anything that keeps you up at night about the business? Talk to me about the hurdles and the challenges.
LB: Things do keep me up at night. I think there aren’t enough retailers and there are so many properties that it just becomes harder and harder to break through. I always want to be unique and I want our brands and our properties to cover new ground.
GC: What’s the biggest risk you have taken?
LB: I would say leaving a great companies like Scripps Howard and United Media and going to Broadway Video. When I was first contacted by Howard Rothman and Gary Himowitz who were then managing the business for Lorne Michaels’ Saturday Night Live, I had never even heard of Broadway Video. It was a risk because I was going into a position that had me acting as both a marketer and licensor. And working for a much smaller, much more entertainment-driven company, but it was the best move I could have made. It was a great transition for me to go to a more corporate environment to the entertainment business. That opened a lot of doors for me.
GC: It must have been hard to leave United Media and Scripps after 12 years but it all worked out for the best. It helped to put you where you are today at Viacom today?
GC: You oversee every type of property, from preschool to adult, how do you manage such a wide range of properties? Do you wear 15 different hats every day?
LB: [laughing] I think I do. It’s about planning. I call it the unsexy part of the entertainment business. It is about really looking out ahead 12, 18, 24 months or more and planning, integrating with the programming and production team. It is teamwork; it is leveraging the practices with one brand and applying it to another. I would like to add that the people I have met at Nickelodeon, MTVN and Paramount are too many to name, but their creativity and talents inspire me everyday.
GC: One thing we were all scratch our heads about is Nickelodeon’s approach to holding back on launching consumer products programs, and giving a property has a chance to establish itself first. Was that your decision? How did you arrive at that strategy?
LB: First of all, it’s because we can. I’m not saying we don’t have the pressures, but I think we are able to take a strategic approach to brand building; you can’t build a brand overnight. We also have found that before fans have an emotional connection with a property they may watch the show, but they may not be inclined to spend the money to get the shirt or buy the toy until they have that attachment. It’s important that we do it that way because it allows us to have a longer lifespan, ideally. And it also makes our licensees and retailers happier because we are more likely to have a successful run at it if we don’t go out before the property is ready.
GC: I agree. It hurts me as a licensee, or as a representative for licensees, to have to make deals, buy and ship and go to the buyers before a property achieves recognition, let alone affection.
Let me go back to the question I asked you a few minutes ago: is it the property or the marketing and management or the properties that makes Nick properties so successful?
LB: I think it all starts with a great story, a great character and an emotional connection that you have with your audience – and all that comes first. Then from a licensing business perspective it is also specifically about getting your products placed at the right time, in the right packaging at the right price point with the right amount of support to help it move on the shelf and that is all about great retailer and licensee relationships. It’s the blend of those two things.
GC: You must be able to convey that to the retailers because it seems to me that there is a heck of a lot of Nick products in the retail community now. You must have a really good retail development team?
LB: I also think that it is bringing the brand to life on the retail shelves – the fun and the humor, all the things that make the network a kid’s destination from an entertainment perspective. We then try to create that in the retail environment. It’s unleashing that creativity in a way that works on the retail shelf. But, that is after you know you have the right product on the right shelf t the right price point, it’s a blend.
GC: On a personal note, is there any particular Nickelodeon character that you identify with? Who are you when you look in the mirror.
LB: I have to say SpongeBob. I’m an optimist and I love fish.
GC: When you were little, what toys did you play with?
LB: I had a Raggedy Ann doll. I remember having a Mrs. Beasley doll.
GC: What a coincidence. Raggedy Ann was the first license I signed for my company, in 1971. Who was Mrs. Beasley?
LB: Mrs. Beasley was a doll in a show with Buffy and Jody and Mr. French. It was called A Family Affair.
GC: Oh yes! Mr. French, of course I remember that.
LB: [Buffy] had a doll, it was the Mrs. Beasley doll and I loved it.
GC: So, tell me about your family.
LB: There’s my husband Greg, we just celebrated our 20th, and our two children Ali (16) and and Daniel (14). I am very lucky.
GC: What do you do in your free time?
LB: I hang with my kids and my husband. We have a house in Woodstock, New York. We go to the theatre a lot, we travel. I do yoga and I’m in a book group.
GC: What is the last book you read?
LB: In Cold Blood. I read it in five hours this past Saturday because on Sunday we had our book group and I had to have it done and, my God, it was fantastic. Amazing. My last business book was Managing Transitions I also found that to be very good.
GC: You’ve achieved a lot in this business. But looking back, if you hadn’t gotten into licensing what do you think you would have ended up doing?
LB: I did an internship in Worcester, Massachusetts with the local cable network there and I would have wanted to be in the news business. I had also interviewed with CBS in the news department. I didn’t get an offer though, but that would have been something that I probably would have wanted to pursue.
GC: There are a lot of people entering the business nowadays. What advice would you give to somebody starting out?
LB: I would say, be true to yourself. Do a job that you think you will like and have fun doing, and also take chances, especially when you are young – go for it.
GC: Looking back over the last 25 years, what would be your most memorable moment in licensing and of what achievement you are most proud?
LB: I would say that my activity with the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation was my most important accomplishment. I feel that I was able to combine the idea of doing well with doing good and I think it’s good for our business and our industry. I feel very proud that I have been able to make a little dent in helping families who have this horrible problem.
GC: You were most responsible for making it LIMA’s official charity?
LB: Yes. I was honored by the Children’s Brain Tumour Foundation. First it roped me in and made me be a co-chair of its gala, and the next year [the Children's Brain Trust Foundation] honored me. The following year, I said I think we can make a new revenue stream if we make the foundation an official LIMA charity.
I went to the LIMA board and pitched. The board was considering a number of different charities, but I felt the fact that brain tumors are the number-one cancer killer of kids zero to 20 [was the most compelling]. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to give, so rather than asking for money constantly, I said let’s do it once a year and tie it to Licensing Show when everybody could plan to give and put it into their budget to give. I also got the industry press involved to help us get the message out…I didn’t want to do anything half-assed. I wanted to do something successful and I think we have done a good job at supporting the cause.
GC: I certainly agree with you. When you look at the licensing side of the business though, what have you done over the past 20 years that took your breath away?
LB: Well, Garfield. We sold four-million Garfield Stuck On You plush in one year when I was at United Media, and that is a pretty incredible feat.
GC: I remember that.
LB: People put them in their cars.
GC: Of course I did, who didn’t?
LB: What’s been going on with SpongeBob in the last couple of years and now Dora, I really feel that these are the kind of things that really only happen once in a lifetime, but I have been very lucky to have worked on a number of these phenomenas.
GC: Is there anything in closing that you’d like to add?
LB: I think this is great.
GC: I certainly have enjoyed it and working with you for all these years. Your door has been open to everyone as you have risen through the ranks. I remember the last time I called you, you answered your own phone. I liked that.
LB: I do, if I’m in my office and I’m not in a meeting I answer my own phone.
GC: Well you said that communication is so very important. Thanks again Leigh Anne. It’s been a pleasure spending time with you.
Gary Caplan is a licensing industry pioneer and president of Gary Caplan Inc., a Studio City, California-based consultancy specializing in the marketing and management of licensing programs. For further information, check out www.garycaplaninc.com.