Q&A: Ross Russell ushers in evergreen strategy at BBC Worldwide

Three months into his new remit as MD of the newly restructured Children's and Licensing division at BBC Worldwide, Neil Ross Russell took some time out to fill in KidScreen staff writer Emily Claire Afan on his gameplan for amping up sales in the next 12 months.
November 25, 2008

Three months into his new remit as MD of the newly restructured Children’s and Licensing division at BBC Worldwide, Neil Ross Russell took some time out to fill in KidScreen staff writer Emily Claire Afan on his gameplan for amping up sales in the next 12 months.

What are your top priorities heading into 2009?
Historically, we’ve not been good at turning a brand into a franchise or making it into an evergreen property – to use those great clichés of the licensing world. That is what we’re trying to do with some of the core brands that we’ve got within the existing portfolio. And that goes beyond children’s, as well. We’ve got 80 years of legacy within the BBC in terms of some great in-house brands, so we’re going across our back catalogue and looking at other non-children’s brands that are well-known and loved in the market, things like Top Gear and Planet Earth. We’re looking at ways we can build licensing campaigns around them to extend the enjoyment of the brands amongst consumers and make a wee bit of money for ourselves and our licensing partners.

So how are you planning on creating a stable of evergreens?
Teletubbies, for example, still brings in a lot of revenue from around the world because it’s such a well-known and well-loved brand. But the biggest issue in the licensing industry is securing that retail shelf space and making sure that your licensees and retailers are still as enamored with the brand as you are.

If you’re a retailer, you’ve got a short attention span and sophisticated modeling software behind you, which will tell you exactly how many units you’re selling of all the different brands. They tend to want to go for the biggest, highest-profile brands. While the awareness of Teletubbies is very high, the profile it has amongst the retail buyers is not always at the same level, so we’re looking at ways of re-invigorating the brand at retail. That means working with our licensees and other partners to come up with concepts for new product lines. It means working with the brand owners – which in this case, is Ragdoll – for new ideas for the show and characters.

If the brand awareness is already there for an older property like Teletubbies, how do you go about capturing retailer interest?
Retailers want footfall through their stores, and they want to maximize the profit per square foot. What they don’t want to see is the same plush range year in, year out. They need to see variation, they need to see things updated, they want to see more marketing presence, and they want to see more activity elsewhere in the brand.

For Teletubbies, you could be talking about moving to a theatrical release, or having a new series of the show, or doing spin-offs and new DVD releases. For example, when Disney did a Winnie the Pooh movie, they weren’t driving the awareness of Winnie the Pooh; they were creating more excitement around the brand and providing retailers with a really good hook as to why they should stock this new merchandise. It has a good trickle-down effect on the rest of the range.

How are you treating brand management in the new structure?
I mentioned our historical inability to really properly manage the brands. There are two reasons for this. The sheer volume of fantastic content that comes out of the BBC means that every time we turn around, we’ve got another great show we have to start working on, which is a fantastic thing. But it means that with a limited number of people on our side, you’ve got everybody focused on In the Night Garden, for example, and suddenly something new comes along and we tend to lurch from one hit to the next.

I’ve tried to allocate each one of our brands to a brand manager who will operate it as a genuine stand-alone small business, if you like. That means we can put that much more focus and attention on individual brands, so you will no longer get this kind of lurch from hit to hit.

According to the last annual report, some BBCW children’s brands have under-performed. How will the new brand managers turn things around?
Yes. It may be that despite all our best efforts, those brands have either had their day or they may be best suited outside of the BBC. We have an extraordinarily large number of brands within our portfolio at the moment, and we need to go through a process of identifying which of those brands we can do justice to.

We offer a service to brand owners. That service is the exploitation of their rights on a global basis. We need to be honest with ourselves and honest with them about our ability to do that. If we’re not adding value to those brands, we need to be up front and discuss with the brand managers how we best go about it. And that may mean we look to sell some of the brands we’ve got. It may mean that we look to end up with a smaller portfolio than we’ve currently got, but all those things are still being decided.

When do you expect to make decisions on cutting down the size of BBCW’s portfolio?
I would certainly hope by the end of the financial year, which for us is April 2009. We will have a very clear idea by then of what we’ve got in our portfolio and what we want to have in it going forward.

How goes the search for BBCW’s new global head of licensing?
The process is underway. I would expect that we would have identified the right person this side of Christmas, and have them on-board by February or March next year.

What are you looking for, and what will that person’s role entail?
I’m looking for a combination of experience and knowledge – for someone who has experience with both kids licensing and adult licensing. I’m also looking for retail experience and someone with contacts in the industry. As I said, they will be based in New York, while the rest of us are based in London, so they’ll be slightly out on a limb.

The role is a global head, but initially, the focus is very much going to be on the US. In terms of children’s brands that have a decent amount of awareness in the US, Teletubbies and Charlie & Lola are the two biggest at the moment. In the Night Garden has been great for us in Canada. As for what platforms our other key brands will be going onto in the US, hopefully I’ll be able to make one announcement soon that will cover all those brands.

You’re also looking to bulk up the BBCW’s digital licensing. What kinds of opportunities are in that area right now?
All sorts. We’ve never been successful at creating a model whereby we can create a genuinely cross-platform property that works not only on TV, but also in the digital world, which is clearly where that age group is going.

The difficulty we have is being constrained by various BBC policy guidelines that exist to protect the interest of UK tax payers. The public is ultimately our boss in all of this, so it’s right and proper that we’re protecting its interests. But that causes us difficultly in terms of how we build a digital model, which is not the traditional TV model. There are many more entry points and touch points, and it’s much harder to differentiate between what should be free and what should be pay.

Both in the UK and internationally, there are undeniably a whole host of opportunities to license our brand in the digital arena. We’re not a games publisher, and when we look at the opportunity that digital and gaming represent, we are keen. We can’t run before we can walk, and we can’t be the publishers ourselves, so we need to work with partners in order to fulfill those opportunities. And that means that we, within our licensing team, need more expertise and more resources in order to be able to secure some of those deals.

What other roles do you see BBCW playing in the gaming sphere?
I flit between calling it gaming and calling it digital. What we do is still largely around children’s, and therefore digital assets will primarily be turned into games, but not exclusively. With things like Planet Earth, for example, there are obviously opportunities outside of gaming, but largely when you’re talking about the Charlie & Lolas and In the Night Gardens of the world, it’s about finding suitable digital assets for the age group and looking for ways we can commercialize them.

And that’s also something you’re looking to lock down by next financial year, right?
Yes, we’re still on track to be able to do that. We’re looking to bulk up our digital business for the end of our (financial) year, so it’ll be starting next year.

Are you building those relationships as we speak?
Absolutely, yes. We’re talking to lots of game publishers as we speak.

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