Jewel Branding’s VP of Brand Licensing, Samira Henley, on standing out, selling out and staying creative.
Samira, pleasure to meet you. Let’s start with easy things! What’s your background, and how did you get into licensing?
My educational background is in business and marketing. More broadly, I’d say I have a pretty multicultural background… I’m half Bulgarian and half Jordanian. I grew up in Kuwait, then got my undergrad and grad degrees in Cyprus and the US respectively. Now I work and live in sunny California…
Strewth! That’s a heck of a mix. I’m kind of hijacking your answer, but to what extent do you think growing up with that diverse background influences your thinking?
I think the exposure to different cultures, religions and languages gave me a sensitivity to – and appreciation of – different cultures. It’s why I love travelling so much and working on international programs with companies from all over the world, as I currently do at Jewel Branding.
Great! And sorry – I got excited and interrupted: I asked how you got into licensing…
Yes! I got into licensing unintentionally about 20 years ago. It was a field that I knew very little about, but one that was very intriguing to me. My first job was for a licensing agency that represented estates of legendary deceased personalities like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean as well as iconic brands like I love NY.
Would that be CMG Worldwide?
Right… And that was fascinating for me; to work with companies in many different business sectors, from all over the world, and to be involved in merchandising and promotional programs that helped keep these iconic legacies alive. After so many years, it’s still such a thrill to see programs you’ve worked on in the marketplace, and to build and grow brands through licensing.
I bet! And – as you say – you now work at Jewel Branding. Whom do they represent? The living, presumably?! Sum it up for me…
The living for sure! Well – for the most part! Jewel Branding is a full-service, global, woman-owned and operated, licensing and creative agency that specialises in representing design-based brand with a distinct point of view. Our clients range from artist influencers to cultural institutions including EttaVee, Bouffants & Broken Hearts, Collier Campbell, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, New York Botanical Gardens, and Rachael Hale.
Terrific. And what are Jewel’s goals and values?
We’re leaders in trend-forward design and this is something we’re very proud of – and have worked hard to build. We’re committed to supporting a diverse array of independent artists and design-based brands in creating meaningful revenue streams, and growing their brands globally, through licensing. To our partners, we’re committed to being a one-stop shop for all their licensing and creative needs. To that end, we’ve carefully built a team of dedicated industry experts who are entrepreneurial, supportive, positive, and solution-oriented. These are the cornerstones of who we are and how we do business.
Great answer. So you have that great array of clients, ranging from art and architecture to fashion and botany. Let’s talk about that! One of your recent projects is the monthly Bloomsybox from New York Botanical Gardens. Stunning idea… How did it come about?
When we’re exploring licensing opportunities, we’re always looking for new brand extensions that are a natural fit and seamless to consumers. For NYBG, we’d identified live flowers and plants as a key category for licensing, and reached out to Bloomsybox to explore a collaboration.
It’s as direct as that? You have the idea; you reach out to see if it’s a match?
It was as direct as that this time! It became evident very quickly that the two companies were perfectly aligned. Together, we created a monthly flower-subscription box. Each one features one-of-a-kind, custom-designed, hand-tied bouquets.
They’re stunning. And presumably NYBG – I’m going to use your abbreviation; save pixels… Presumably NYBG is better positioned to do this than anyone else in the world?
Well, we’d say so, naturally… The plants are sourced from fairtrade flower farms that are Rainforest Alliance certified. The collection itself is inspired by NYBG’s magnificent living collections, as well as rare botanical works found in its LuEsther T. Mertz Library.
That’s the botanical library… It’s just so cool; brilliant idea. I’ve got to ask, then, what’s your process? How do you start?
We represent a really diverse portfolio of brands… That means it’s extremely important to us to make sure we find the perfect design solution and brand for each company’s unique needs. We start by learning more about the company, their goals and their target audience. We work with our clients to develop a licensing strategy and then pro-actively pursue opportunities.
And this is across the board in terms of services?
Yes – in fact, a few years ago, we launched a creative-services division to service manufacturers and retailers who are looking for trend-direction and product-development guidance. We work closely with the client to provide them whatever creative services they might need. They range from trend presentations to product-and-packaging development to original art designs.
“Our goal is to enable manufacturers to have extraordinary art that stands out and sells out at retail”
You know, it didn’t really occur to me until recently that there must be a huge market for art… This is a big part of what you do?
Absolutely; art licensing is a significant portion of our business where manufacturers and retailers need a constant stream of new art. We’ve invested heavily in technology and proprietary software where it’s our goal to make licensing art a seamless process that enables manufacturers to have extraordinary art that stands out and sells out at retail. It’s very important for programs we license to be a good strategic fit for all parties – and for the association to feel organic and natural.
“Stands out and sells out!” Love that! Let me ask you this: in your experience, what’s the secret of creativity in design? And what kills creativity stone dead?
What kills creativity stone dead is – I think – overthinking. Because I believe the secret to creativity is inspiration… I feel that inspiration isn’t just necessary for design, but also for creativity in any other area.
And what’s your creative secret weapon? If you get stuck, say?
If I get creatively stuck, my secret weapon is to take a breath and go for a quick walk or jog outside, whenever that’s possible. The fresh air and nature really help refocus and shift the mindset.
Brilliant. I meant to ask earlier: are there any things that would be a definite no for Jewel? And, in the future, areas you’d love to work in?
As a small entrepreneurial agency, we’re always looking at new opportunities and ideas to see if we feel it’s a fit for us. That said, we’ve differentiated ourselves as leaders in trend-forward design so we feel that’s an important component of any project or client we take-on.
Trend-forward design… Okay! And am I right in saying that Jewel also buys and develops IP? You mentioned The Rachel Hale brand, for example?
Yes, that’s correct. Rachael Hale – ‘The World’s Most Lovable Animals’ – is an evergreen, internationally-licensed brand… We’d worked with and licensed the brand for over a decade, so we already had personal experience with it. When the opportunity came to buy the brand, we jumped at it because it has an emotional connection to consumers. It also has longevity, global appeal and an impressive base of core licensees to build and grow from.
What’s the strategy behind buying the IP? What are the benefits, and what are the risks?
The strategy behind acquiring or developing the IP is to build steady revenue streams that you control. The benefits are that you have full control of these properties and can manage and grow them by design – and reap 100% of the revenues. But on the flip side – you know what I’m going to say… You also bear 100% of the risk!
Dammit! There’s always a catch… And when you say you’ve invested heavily, this would be the kind of thing?
Right. In addition to acquiring IP, we also develop proprietary systems and software like Artonomo. Artonomo is smart content-management platform for artists, manufacturers and creative businesses. It’s an affordable solution to managing, curating, organising, showcasing and selling creative content in a very seamless way.
Oh, this is fantastically interesting! Jewel actually developed the system?
We developed the system! Originally, we developed it for our own needs. We were handling a tremendous amount of art. We had to keep track of it, and effectively categorise and showcase it too.
It pains me to say this Samira, but I need to start wrapping things up… Just before I do, can you give us a sneak peak at something that’s upcoming?
We’re excited to be introducing a new virtual show connecting the Art + Design Licensing community. Showcase is a two-day virtual experience – scheduled in May – to share new, on-trend artwork, gain valuable industry insights, and make business connections. The show connects artists and agents with manufacturers and retailers looking for the latest on-trend art from around the world.
And who’s exhibiting?
Art and design licensing agents, and a curated group of artists. We’ll have webinars, with industry-leading panelists and speakers discussing important topics related to licensing, retail and trends. You can also look at the Showcase page at artonomo.com for more information.
Well look, that’s very nearly the perfect outro! Okay… We’ll make sure we stick a link to the Showcase page here. Samira, this has been nothing but a pleasure, thanks so much for your time… Last question: What’s the strangest thing you’ve found yourself doing for a brand?
Hmmmmm… As part of our research, and to keep our pulse on what’s selling or trending at retail, we quite often do store walks…
Ah yes! Walking in a store… I vaguely recall the pleasure!
Oh, don’t… It seems like a lifetime ago… Anyway, when that’s easier to do, I like to take a look at different products or categories we want to expand into and get a sense of who manufactures them. Many times that entails taking detailed pictures of the products, writing notes and so on. We just look SO conspicuous to sales people! I hate to think what they’re thinking!
Great answer! Samira Henley; thank you so much… I’m going to do two things: I’m going to send you some art, and I’m going to send you some flowers. By which I mean I’m going to doodle a picture of some flowers and send you that!