Barbie's booming business

Claire Derry - as the head of Link Licensing - is the woman behind a thousand spin-offs
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The Independent Online
IF YOU are dismayed by the fact that your young daughter is devoted to a pair of Barbie training shoes, or amazed by her sister's or brother's attachment to Goosebumps horror books and television series, blame Link Licensing.

Since being spun out of what is now United News & Media in 1986, the business has grown from an unwanted non-core operation into one of the UK entertainment industry's leading companies for the marketing and development of intellectual property rights.

Essentially, the business involves "leveraging" well-known brands, by promoting everything bar the product itself. Accordingly, in the Barbie case, it would be responsible for every image seen of Barbie - other than the doll itself - on everything from toy suitcases to writing paper.

In other cases, such as museums, a company such as Link will be more concerned with creating products based on, or using, facsimiles of exhibits in the institution.

At a time when the world appears to have an insatiable hunger for such initiatives Link has done so well that it is among Britain's fastest-growing businesses, with turnover growing from just pounds 600,000 in 1994 to pounds 4.2m last year.

In the current period, sales are expected to reach pounds 6m, while the staff has grown from three to 30. Meanwhile, Claire Derry, the managing director, has been honoured as a business leader.

The business in its current form was created by Ms Derry, who had spent the three years before 1986 working on the development and sale of television programmes. When United Newspapers, as the parent company was then, decided the operation was surplus to requirements, she found herself faced with either taking redundancy or mounting a management buyout. David Hamilton, an accountant who got his break in television when Lord Hanson recruited him to the Trident Television Group, joined at this time, taking on the role of chairman, and helped Ms Derry raise sufficient finance from the venture capital company Grosvenor to acquire the business. That situation lasted until 1995, when Guinness Mahon Development Capital, now known as Proven, became the backer.

The arrival of the new finance also led to the establishment of a new direction for the business.

The licensing operation counts Asterix, Camberwick Green, The Magic Roundabout, the Natural History Museum and Lord's Cricket Ground among its properties in addition to Mattel's Barbie. But alongside it, Ms Derry and her team have moved into making and marketing television programmes. Though only recently established, this operation has got off to a strong start, playing a role in the creation of a number of animated films. This Christmas, it will be able to claim a hand in features appearing on both BBC1 and ITV - The Forgotten Toys and The First Snow of Winter.

Moreover, a children's series, Teddybears, based on a collection of books by Susanna Gretz, will start in January and Link is already developing toys, books and other products connected to it.

Ms Derry, who as part of her drive to develop the business has recently gone through the Institute of Directors' company direction programme, insists that this sector has its good times and bad times like any other. But she does accept that a company based on serving a children's audience is perhaps more resilient than others, because people buy things for children even in a recession.

She also points out that while the casual observer will have detected much greater use of product licensing than even a few years ago, the market has become tougher. This is because the increase in the number of channels means that programmes often have a smaller audience than before.

However, the plethora of channels does mean that some shows, such as The Magic Roundabout, are revived and this throws up new licensing opportunities.

These can range from the use of characters on products as varied as fizzy- drink cans and pencil sets to allying brand names with other complementary products or services.

In a short period of time, it has become a multi-million pound business and is increasingly seen as a way of generating a significant revenue stream as well as adding to the profile and awareness of the property.

With two young children of her own, Ms Derry must have a shrewd idea of the likes and dislikes of a highly fickle group of consumers. However, it is clear that her children also present a challenge in that - even though work and home are both in west London - they are part of a family life that must be juggled with her career.

"It is extremely difficult to do both very well," she says.

She and her colleagues attribute the success of this little-known satellite of the media universe to such factors as taking care to meet clients' needs and expectations, while keeping to agreed budgets and timescales.

But it is clear that two factors placed at the bottom of the company's list of priorities - having a long-term vision of the market and the potential of each property within it and delivering a professional, honest and friendly service - score highly with clients.

According to one satisfied client, quoted in Link's publicity material, Ms Derry and her team have "a fantastic long-term perception of what a licensing programme is all about". Another adds: "Their reputation as a straight, sound and professional company is well deserved."

Only the parents confronted with endless demands for licensed goods seem to be concerned.