Feature: How Licensing Works! Turns Classic Stories Into Valuable Modern Brands

By Gary Symons

TLL Editor in Chief

In the world of licensing, knowledge of the latest trends can be key to a successful business, but there are times when, in the pursuit of the latest viral trend, licensees can overlook the appeal of truly classic brands.

That’s the raison d’être behind Licensing Works!, an agency that focuses on classic brands that have been around for many decades, many of which are based on literary works like Tarzan and Zorro, which were first published in 1912 and 1919 respectively, or the 1943 novella The Little Prince.

Licensing Works’ head of brand management Scott Cherrin says that focus is on evergreen brands with a history of long tail revenues. “We are unique in that we specialize in classic, evergreen 25-135+ year-old iconic multi-generational legacy IPs that are truly timeless, universally recognizable and relatable to all age and gender demos,” Cherrin explains. “We build licensing programs that proactively offer brand protection by expanding into new complementary product categories, often for the first time, enabling our clients to secure additional trademark protection.

Licensing Works! head of brand management, Scott Cherrin.

“Our clients understand that a successful licensing program is not built overnight, but over time compounding in the aggregate to achieve the desired critical mass,” he adds. “Our clients are in it for the long-term and what’s best for the brand, not the short term and a quick buck. As a result, many of our clients enjoy long standing relationships with licenses that continue to thrive over multiple renewal terms. Many clients have been with us for 15+ years, including Kewpie, Tarzan, Zorro, Puppy in My Pocket and Moulin Rouge.”

Cherrin has worked extensively in film and television, having worked at Endeavor (now WME, an Endeavor Company), and bringing Tarzan to Warner Bros. Pictures for a 2016 film that he co-produced. 

Cherrin believes that classic literary works have an inherent advantage that most film and television properties can seldom match.

“Film & TV Licensing have a limited shelf life, often lasting as little as 3-6 months before and after their release,” Cherrin says. “More often than not, many top manufacturers of licensed products require the minimum threshold of a sustained five years of ongoing film & TV series to pick-up a license.

“Iconic publishing IPs are immune from this spoilage factor because they are timeless classics that never leave public consciousness or retail commerce. Film & entertainment IP (based on the books) merely boost what is already a robust awareness,” he adds. “Our value proposition is that many of our clients have enjoyed an ongoing presence at retail for decades, supported by but not dependent upon ongoing sustained media events. Likewise, we are fortunate in that we license multiple iterations of each client IP. For example, in addition to Classic Zorro, we offer licensing for every iteration including the Guy Williams TV series, Zorro The Gay Blade, The Mask of Zorro, The Legend of Zorro and the new TV series on Amazon Prime among others.”

That said, part of Cherrin’s expertise is in bringing these classic tales to TV or theatre screens, while also ensuring brands are protected. In addition to having worked with the Endeavor talent agency, Cherrin is a non-practicing attorney with a deep knowledge of IP law.

“We have long standing experience negotiating live-action and animated feature films and TV series, often overseeing development and production on a client’s behalf,” Cherrin says. “We have created extensive brand decks, comps/product mock-ups as well as having aggregated, curated and maintained robust asset libraries that we offer through digital asset management delivery & approval systems. Also, as several of our clients are 100-plus years young, brand protection is essential,” he adds. “Likewise we work with innovative service providers to thwart pirates by freezing assets that monetize recovery from counterfeit client branded goods.”

Licensing Works! founder Leslie Levine.

Licensing Works! was launched by Leslie Levine, who had previously worked in licensing and family entertainment with expertise in strategic planning, start-up management, marketing and promotions. After graduating with a degree in advertising, Levine was first employed by one of the top two advertising agencies in the Southwest to plan media strategies for key national and regional brands.

She worked at Coca-Cola Foods as a media planner then was later promoted to brand manager of the $100 million Hi-C Fruit Drinks brand, where she first developed a passion for licensing as a strategic promotional tool. Focused on licensing, Levine later worked at Marvel, then Hasbro, Mattel, Harvey Entertainment, Playmates Toys, Hearst Entertainment, and Classic Media. That latter company saw Levine manage more than 30 classic properties, where she helped Classic Media grow to a $305 million valuation, resulting in the sale of the company to Entertainment Rights, now a part of Dreamworks Animation.

This experience also created a love for classic stories, and in 2007 Levine opened the doors at Licensing Works!, bringing with her Scott Cherrin. 

“It’s hard to believe we are entering year 17!” Levine says. “I’ve always felt that there is a great opportunity to nurture and grow the many iconic, multi-generational franchises that have established their brand equity in film, publishing, television, toys and games.”

Today, 17 years of success have proven Levine’s instincts were correct, and that the company’s focus on classic brands with great stories makes sense in a world that often seems obsessed with change and the latest trends. Levine says the key is in working with a property that has universal appeal, and can speak to the reader’s heart even a century after the words were first published.

“The brands that we represent, whether they are 40 or 135 years old, share the commonality of great character development,” Levine says. “Storylines continue to fascinate generation after generation, and each of our clients carefully build and curate adaptations that will take each of these great franchises into the next century and beyond. When we consider representing a newly created IP, we look for those same characteristics as our North Star.”

For the first seven years Levine and Cherrin shared the top leadership roles, but as the firm grew the partners understood they needed more high-powered help to share the load. Fortunately, Licensing Works! was able to bring on board John Gildea, who is not only a licensing powerhouse with 35 years of experience, but also worked with Levine in the past.

The new animated series The Little Prince and Friends is based on the legendary novel The Little Prince, which is not only among the most popular children’s novellas of all time, but also holds the record for the book translated into the most languages!

Among his many achievements, Gildea is credited with creating the licensing division at Hasbro, the iconic toy and game company, which has grown to be a $6 billion operation. “Scott and I were very fortunate right out of the gate securing great iconic IP to represent, and then John Gildea joined us a few years later,” Levine says. “I had been John’s first employee in the Hasbro Licensing start-up, representing My Little Pony, GI Joe, Transformers and other terrific Hasbro IP. We were delighted to add John’s skill sets to the team and equally sad when he decided to retire two years ago.” But even though Gildea is retired, he still consults with Licensing Works! on special projects.

In 2015, a fourth key management member joined the team, as licensing veteran Jill Collins took on management of Retail Partnerships and Promotions, which has become key to the agency’s business.

“I joined the team a decade ago this year,” Collins says. “Leslie asked me to join the team shortly after working with Licensing Works! on promotions. Our clients include publishing properties that are among the most recognizable in the world,” Collins says. “More importantly, they are characters that enjoy deep emotional connections with consumers, evoking cherished relationships, milestones and memories such as the birth of a child, a holiday or a baby/child’s first. “We work with licensees to create products and experiences that allow consumers to celebrate those connections and share them with generations of new fans.”

After graduating from Vanderbilt University with a double major in Communication Studies and Economics, Collins worked with Grey Entertainment, Applause LLC, and then Strottman International, where she held the role of V.P. Licensing and Partnerships until she joined forces with Licensing Works! At Strottman, Jill built and managed the highest-volume licensing/partnership group in the promotional marketing industry. She aligned clients such as Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, Chuck E. Cheese, Wendy’s, LeapFrog and 76 gas stations with partners such as Disney, Hasbro, Mattel, Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese, America’s Got Talent, Monster Jam, The US Mint, Frito-Lay and Microsoft to create more than 300 promotions.

Jill returned to Strottman in 2004 and remained there as V.P. Licensing and Partnerships until January 2015, when she joined forces with Licensing Works! after working with the team on a promotion for Chick-fil-A. “All of us were thrilled when Jill came on-board, adding her expertise working with top QSRs and restaurants, amusement parks, retailers and national package goods brands”, said Levine.

Despite her success at Strottman, Collins said she was attracted by Licensing Works! philosophy of working with classic properties. “Our clients’ publishing properties are among the most recognizable in the world,” Collins says. 

Licensing Works! developed the first licensing campaign for the Winchster Mystery House, which included the most successful social media campaign for the Halloween specialty retail chain Spirit of Halloween.

For example, Collins cites a recent campaign for Winchester Mystery House as one of her favorite campaigns. “We were tasked with launching the first licensing program ever for Winchester Mystery House,” Collins recalls. “2023 marked the 100th anniversary of arguably one of the most interesting and enigmatic places on Earth.”

Winchester Mystery House, the ancestral home of Sarah Pardee Winchester, is a top historic estate in San Jose, CA and a favorite of historians, road-trippers, and paranormal buffs. “Licensing Works! was privileged to work with the WMH team to bring a comprehensive and unique collection of merchandise celebrating and commemorating 100 years of the unique and unexplained,” Collins says. “Specialty fashion and accessories, publishing and games, to adult targeted pumpkin carving kits were fun to bring to life with great product translations. Promotionally, we worked with Spirit Halloween on their most successful social promotions ever, and we’re excited to help the WMH team reveal Sarah’s secrets to the world for the next 100 years with new entertainment and exciting new product translations in the works.”

“Anniversaries are our bread and butter. We are particularly excited about the 135th Anniversary of Moulin Rouge this year.”

Licensing Works! is guiding the campaign this year for the 135th anniversary of the legendary Parisian showroom Moulin Rouge.

Cherrin says one of his favorite campaigns also began in 2023, for long-time client The Little Prince, the legendary novella from the pioneering pilot turned novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry coinciding with its 80th Anniversary. “Last year we launched a successful line of fine gem bridal and fashion jewelry for The Little Prince/Le Petit Prince with retailer Reeds Jewelers,” Cherrin says. “Reeds truly understood the essence of why TLP is so special with readers – including inspirational quotes from the book along with iconic imagery seamlessly intertwined with beautiful jewelry designs – tapping into a story that continues to sell 5 million copies of the original book annually more than 80 years after its first publication.

“Careful attention was paid to the materials chosen in these collections, including colorless diamonds, thoughtfully recycled precious metals and carbon neutral green production. Each piece featured branded elements that masterfully wove many of the 200 beautiful quotes from The Little Prince and the themes of love and friendship, care for the Earth, as well as travels through the stars and space.”

Levine elaborated on the 2023-2024 Kewpie campaigns as among her recent favorites. “We have enjoyed a long relationship with the Kewpie IP nurturing it along almost from the beginning of Licensing Works!” Levine said.

The creator, Rose O’Neill, was honored in 2023 as an inductee into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, and in 2022 she was recognized posthumously with an Eisner Award at San Diego Comic Con and prior to that she was inducted into the 2019 National Women’s Hall of Fame. “All wonderful tributes long overdue,” Levine said, adding, “2024 is a break-out year in merchandise for the Kewpie brand as we are rolling out goods across major trend retailers, such as the Valentine’s Kewpie collection featured and now available at PacSun. There is new product rolling out across a broad array of categories as we help spread Kewpie joy to new generations during this 115th celebratory year.”

Licensing Works! client Kewpie Doll is experiencing a breakout year in 2023/24, as the 115-year-old brand is rolling out a range of new products at retail. As well, creator Rose O’Neill, was honored in 2023 as an inductee into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, and in 2022 with an Eisner Award at San Diego Comic Con.

As editor of The Licensing Letter for three years, I’ve found that one common trait among people in this business is that they gravitate to work with the properties they like the best, so people interested in art tend to work with design brands, those who enjoy film work in entertainment and character licensing, and so on. At Licensing Works!, as I found out in our interview, the common thread is a love of literature and storytelling.

When asked what the favorite part of his job is, Cherrin said, “Every day we get to work with iconic characters that everyone loves; many from our childhood such as Zorro, Tarzan and The Little Prince. Not only are we their protectors, but we are also fortunate to be trusted with transforming them into consumer goods that we envision and desire ourselves as fans.”

Collins agreed, saying good stories are what keep her motivated. “I love the storytelling around each of the brands along with the challenge of translating something that is so personal to so many people in compelling and innovative ways,” she said.

And Levine notes that it’s not just the story itself but having the opportunity to create something new from that story. “My favorite parts are the initial strategic plan, learning new industries so it never gets boring, and seeing products come to reality on store shelves.”

Levine also says that love of the brand combined with deep experience is the main reason a medium-sized specialty agency like Licensing Works! can often be a better choice for certain licensors, rather than a large and more generalized company.

“Licensing Works! endures and thrives against much larger agencies and studios, we believe, due in part to our well-rounded skill sets,” she says. “We have been seated on all sides of the table giving us great perspective on strategic planning and negotiating win-win deals for all involved,” Levine explains.  “We carefully curate our client portfolio with brands and characters we are passionate about, giving them individual attention.”

For more information, or to discuss licensing opportunities, interested parties can contact Licensing Works!: info@licensingworks.us or 702-485-5677.