Simon Waters is taking a fresh look at franchises

The former Disney and Hasbro exec has launched a consulting firm in an effort to help smaller IPs build big worlds.
February 3, 2021

The word “franchise” conjures up images of brands that are too big to fail—the Marvels or the Star Wars of the entertainment world.

But industry vet Simon Waters believes this focus on franchises can be applied to even the smallest or newest of properties.

“Smaller IP owners look at a company like Disney, and all they see are the immense resources. But what Disney really does well is tell great stories,” he says. “And while having that scale certainly helps you build a franchise, it’s possible for everyone in the industry to apply those lessons to their own brands.”

In order to help companies develop successful franchises, Waters launched a new LA-based consulting firm called World Builder last month. It’s set up to work with IP owners to build and manage proprietary franchise plans based on their content, characters or consumer products.

Waters decided to branch out into consulting comes after a long career spent building successful franchises for some of the biggest players in the kids space. He spent nearly a decade with Disney, ending his tenure there as global VP of franchise development and marketing. And he then spent 10 years at Hasbro, initially serving as GM and SVP of entertainment and licensing, and later adding global GM and SVP of the Power Rangers franchise to his remit.

Waters says the most important thing he learned in those years is what doesn’t work.

“There are traps that companies fall into when they’re trying to build a franchise,” he says. “So many companies approach world-building from a purely creative perspective, or from a purely financial perspective.”

A studio, for example, might be focused on the creative expansion of the story, while a toymaker might only be thinking about the financial benefits of expanding into content. Because of his experience building franchises across both content and consumer products, Waters believes he can share both creative and commercial insight with these teams and help them find the right blend.

Waters also thinks the creative aspect of world-building needs to happen in the absence of corporate hierarchy to ensure that unique ideas don’t get crushed by more practical concerns. Managers asking questions about how a new animation technique will fit into the budget, for example, might discourage a train of thought that could lead to the company’s next big hit.

Once franchise-building is underway, however, Waters warns that the quickest way to kill an IP’s growth is to not properly coordinate with all team members.

“It’s not sexy, but coordination is crucial,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen where different teams have different interpretations of which [brand expansions] carry the franchise’s message and when. Smaller companies have a huge advantage in that sense [because there are fewer people weighing in on each decision].”

And it’s because Waters wants to work with smaller and up-and-coming companies that his consultancy is focusing on the language of “world-building” rather than on franchises.

A company of any size can build a world, and unlike the behemoths suggested by the word “franchise,” those worlds can be quite niche. A world—whether it’s inspired by content, a character or consumer products—can encompass multiple markets or categories, but doesn’t need to be ubiquitous.

For companies that are looking to build that all-encompassing brand, however, Waters suggests they double their timelines and halve their revenue expectations.

“Everything takes longer than you’d think, especially now,” he says. “But that’s not a bad thing. Building a world takes time.”

And Waters is in it for the long haul. In addition to developing a franchise plan for companies, World Builder also coaches leadership on how to manage those efforts both immediately and down the road. Looking forward, Waters hopes to partner with Netflix to focus on consumer products and franchise-building for some of the streaming giant’s successful IPs.

His goal is to facilitate the balance between creative and corporate for all companies, no matter their size or scope. “A lot of companies fall down when they get to that step in franchise-building.”

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