Steven Heller: Licensing Out, Licensing In

Steven Heller, president and founder, The Brand Liaison, reflects on his career, his business, the licensing industry and more in this exclusive interview.

McKenna Morgan, Content Editor

February 23, 2023

6 Min Read
Steven Heller speaking at the 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop press conference at Licensing Expo.
Steven Heller speaking at the 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop press conference at Licensing Expo.Tom Hinckley

At a Glance

  • Licensing industry veteran Steven Heller tells all to License Global in this exclusive interview.
  • What's next for The Brand Liaison? Find out here.
  • Heller reflects on his career: what got him here, what he's doing now and what's next.

Steven Heller is a well-known person in the licensing community. As the founder of licensing agency The Brand Liaison, he has spearheaded countless licensing programs in his career and has worked with brands like Disney, Macy’s, “Sesame Street” and the NFL.

It was a busy 2022 for Heller and The Brand Liaison. During Licensing Expo, The Brand Liaison announced it was representing The 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop and its upcoming events. To celebrate the cultural milestone, The Brand Liaison secured licensing partnerships with Isaac Morris, Philcos and Mitchell & Ness. KissCam (the broadcast program seen at arenas during sports events) was granted a U.S. Patent for “KissCam Contests” and The Brand Liaison will represent the brand in licensing. Apparel company, FUBU, released collaborations with Forever 21, Marvel and children’s apparel brand, House of JR. Built, an insulated lunch bag brand, and Bearpaw, a footwear/outdoor lifestyle brand, recently ventured into licensing with The Brand Liaison.

License Global spoke with Heller to reflect on his role in the licensing industry, how he got here and what’s next for The Brand Liaison.

BUILT promo image.

BUILT promo image.

License Global: How did you start your career in licensing?

Steven Heller: My dad, my grandfather, my uncles and my cousins were all in the apparel industry, and my family had many licenses over the years. My path to this industry started as an attorney where I practiced law in trademarks and licensing, doing deals with Disney and Marvel, the “Sesame Street” launch at K-Mart and licensing of fashion brands including major licensing programs for Gloria Vanderbilt 30 years ago – and again today! My life has really come full circle.

Related:FUBU, Haus of JR Team for Limited Luxury Collaboration

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How did The Brand Liaison come to be?

I didn’t set out to create a full-service licensing agency. I was working on a few deals with the NFL and some other sports leagues, so I set up the company as a vehicle for processing commissions on those deals. One thing led to another, and suddenly we had several brands in sports with Loudmouth Golf, LPGA and Roland-Garros, the French Open tennis brand. I met wedding celebration expert, David Tutera, a few HGTV stars and we had opportunities with a top fashion brand. It all blossomed from there. Those first brands put us on the map. Our presence at Licensing Expo with Loudmouth was very noticeable. The company started to take off when we brought on top industry talent. We would not be where we are today without the team that we have; Karen Diamond and Laurie Smith are talented industry veterans, same with Paul Cohen and Marcy Silverman in home and gift and Katey Gabrielson in beauty. That’s how it started to grow and then everyone else and of course, Cory Waisner and,more recently, Elisa Gangl, who head up the licensee side of our business. It’s this team that propels this company.

Obamas on KissCam.

Obama's on KissCam.

What does The Brand Liaison do differently for licensees and licensors?

It’s the opposite side of the same coin. When we represent the brand, the licensor, we are licensing out the brand to various manufacturers, and vice-versa. When we represent the manufacturer as the licensee, we secure the right brand for their products and channels of distribution. So, the company is basically two separate divisions, dividing up responsibilities that way, with Cory and Elisa leading the licensee side of business. They have both been doing this a very long time and everyone loves working with them, so that really helped catapult the company as well. We all know strong relationships are the pulse of this industry.

We just had a client hire us to provide a licensing industry landscape report, and we have identified several trends including brands utilizing a mix of e-commerce and brick and mortar, brands looking to implement immersive experiences and location-based entertainment in the children’s entertainment space. We are seeing toy companies creating content and even acquiring content creators so that is very interesting trend. And then mix in a little nostalgia, collectability and collaborations. There is also a lot of investment in brands, content and licensing. We have several investors and private equity looking for investments in this space.

FUBU glasses.

FUBU glasses.

In addition to The Brand Liaison, you are also on the Board of Licensing International. How is that going?

It’s a great opportunity for me to give back to the licensing community and play a role in the direction of the industry – things like advanced education, the diversity and inclusion efforts and the new sustainability initiatives are all big steps for our industry, and we are making very focused efforts to expand the licensing community to add more activities in sports and fashion licensing.

What are your proudest moments in your career?

I am very lucky. I love what I do and it’s working out well. There is a lot to be proud of, and a lot to be thankful for. I am very proud of where the company is, and I am thankful for the friendships and relationships that I have made in this industry. But a few specifics, I am really very proud of the COVID Solutions webinar I created when the pandemic first hit. Everyone was so scared and there was so much uncertainty, that it really helped a lot of people both emotionally and practically with real solutions. It was the mostwatched video in the history of Licensing International. I am proud of all the educational videos I do – especially for newcomers to this industry – but that video really made a difference for a lot of people. I still get compliments on it. I am also very proud – and this is funny to say – of losing awards to Alison Ames, Jay Asher, Stu Seltzer and Ross Misher. To me, Alison and Jay are among the best of the best in this industry and Stu and Ross have built such great companies. Just to be nominated with that caliber of people in this industry is great!

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What can people expect from The Brand Liaison in the future?

Hopefully, a lot more of the same. We will continue to be passionate about this business, selective in the properties we take on and we will continue to provide top-level expertise in connecting brands and manufacturers and bringing more retailer support. That is an area of growth for us. Also, a few more webinars and educational videos, and to continue to develop great relationships and friendships and enjoy the journey. We love what we do.

Lastly, what advice would you give to someone else entering the industry?

I think I am still giving myself advice. Stay focused is my best advice. It’s so hard with so many brands and companies and opportunities to stay focused and not get distracted. Do one thing great, and don’t try to do five things at once, as they all get diluted.

About the Author(s)

McKenna Morgan

Content Editor, License Global

McKenna Morgan is Content Editor for License Global. Based in the Santa Monica office, McKenna specializes in coverage involving non-profits, beauty and cosmetics, health and wellness, new and social media and entertainment licensing.

When McKenna isn’t covering the latest licensing news, she spends her time attending live music shows and finding her next travel destination.

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