How Stephen Reily, co-founder, chief executive officer, IMC Licensing, scans the brand landscape to ensure authentic extensions for all clients.

Ben Roberts, Content Director

August 25, 2023

6 Min Read
Stephen Reily, IMC Licensing
Stephen ReilyIMC Licensing

At a Glance

  • Licensed extensions and consumer products strategy
  • Market observation
  • The licensing business and consumer market, built for change

The licensing industry has evolved and continues to evolve at an increasingly rapid pace. Having come into the industry 26 years ago, Stephen Reily has seen significant market changes, giant shifts in consumer behavior and navigated an increasingly complex business landscape by holding true to his original values, building IMC Licensing into the business it is today.

Those values consist of authentic, curated and planned growth over long-standing partnerships, not rushing into the new or the next but focusing on what works for each client.

“I think part of our culture comes from having been around 26 years,” says Reily. “We’ve always taken the long perspective and focused on long-term relationships. Our client relationships last on average a decade or more, and most of the licensing partnerships we manage have similar longevity.”

Moving the needle for a partnership in terms of new collaborations, licensed extensions and consumer products is a strategy for IMC that is bespoke to each client. The opportunities and partnerships explored by Reily and the team have a stringent requirement of being perfectly matched for that given brand, allowing the chance for licensee, brand owner and all parties involved to benefit organically and over time.

“When I got into the industry, I was very excited about working and helping build brands that had been around forever; they had near universal awareness,” says Reily. “So, growing these brands meant finding deals, opportunities and partnerships that could really move the needle for them. That meant focusing on big opportunities and on longevity because it is over time that a licensing partnership will build impact.”

Tabasco Brand slot machine

Tabasco Brand slot machine

Long-term Perspective

For IMC Licensing, that means focusing on a long-term perspective and, ideally, a five-year strategy for each client, boiling that down into a timeline of impactful decisions for each brand and curating partnerships with best-in-class licensees.

“There are immediately profitable ways to license,” adds Reily. “Big bets on short-term wins such as following cultural opportunities of the moment. And it felt like it didn’t play to our strengths. It didn’t play to a business model I thought could serve our client. It was really what our clients wanted, and sometimes they get distracted, and they may want something exciting at the moment. Our job is to remind them that they will be around forever, and we want licensing partnerships that will be around forever with them, just like we, as their licensing agents, will be.”

One of the founding reasons for this approach was navigating the market of the ’90s as a first entrance into the licensing field, an understanding that holds unique benefits for brands IMC has worked with over many years, including Tidy Cats, TABASCO, Sweet Baby Ray's and Southern Comfort."

“The trend that was underway that has defined my career in licensing is consolidation – among manufacturers, among retailers and among brands – and that means it became a lot harder to find ways to thread the needle for clients and to find opportunities," adds Reily. "But when you do, they really hit big, and that’s been the trade-off. So, there used to be a world where many brands could find many licensing opportunities, but with increased consolidation, knowing how to find the right ones in a changing landscape is the real key. Finding the right opportunity for our clients requires a thorough discovery process and developing a strategy based on key insights. A great example of this is how we learned a key character trait of hot sauce lovers is that they are also risk-takers, and we know risk-takers like to gamble. We partnered our client, TABASCO, with a slot machine company to create an interactive hot sauce inspired slot machine that put the brand in front of consumers in an unexpected space and built brand awareness on a global scale.”

Bridgford x Sweet Baby Ray's Original Beef Jerky

Bridgford x Sweet Baby Ray's Original Beef Jerky

Market Observation

According to Reily, this is where patience, market observation and the strategy of “fewer, bigger and better” comes into play. Trends surrounding licensing today are rife with wariness and risk aversion among retailers due to excess inventory, concerns surrounding inflation and, of course, the looming threat of recession. For Reily, working with the right people and waiting a little longer for the right opportunity is the cornerstone of success in the modern licensing market.

Reily says the licensing business and consumer market are naturally built for change, so closely connected with consumer behavior that global shifts ultimately impact the brand licensing business and the strategies within.

"The licensing business is constantly buffeted; that’s been the lesson of my career in licensing,” adds Reily. “I was there when online sales started, and suddenly, the world changed forever. Amazon used to be a bookseller. Walmart only sold groceries in some places. This constant shakeup had stretched from when I started, moved through the changes of the 2008 recession, global political instability, the COVID effects on the supply chain and the impact of everything on the global manufacturing base. Business used to be so global, now saying 'Made in America' may not only be popular right now, but it could become essential to support the integrity and sustainability of your business. The only constant is change and licensing changes with it. That’s why it continues to grow.”

However, this cautious and curated approach does not mean IMC isn’t excited about the new. Two new clients have joined the agent’s portfolio.

SilverSneakers, the premier fitness brand is helping older adults in the U.S. to lead healthier lives, bringing opportunities for partnerships. “It’s a space in which there’s a lot of interest,” adds Reily. “They have a big business of 18 million members, they sponsor the National Senior Games, and it’s a generation that has yet to be known for retiring. It’s a really active market, and there’s an excellent opportunity to support their active lifestyles with SilverSneakers products.”

The second new client to the roster is Lamaze International, a nonprofit brand supporting healthy pregnancy, maternity and child-rearing. IMC Licensing is now building on the long and very successful multiyear partnership between Lamaze International and Tomy for children, infant and toddler toys with new pregnancy and infancy lines.

Fast-paced change is part of the ongoing evolution of the licensing business, however, IMC's curated and strategic approach is building long-standing and authentic growth across verticals, audiences and products regardless of trend. As Stephen Reily himself states, "fewer, bigger and better."

This article was also published in the August issue of License Global.

About the Author(s)

Ben Roberts

Content Director, License Global

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