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Royalty and Royalties: How Bob Launey Changed the Agency Model and Tried to Reinvent TV

By Published on .

When I was an Ad Age reporter in New York, in the '60s, I used to hang out with Bob Heady, the most intrepid Ad Age journalist I ever worked with, and Bob Launey, an account guy at BBDO before he started his own agency in 1965. Bob turned 90 this June, and I thought you'd like to hear the story of how Bob's agency developed royal connections.

Bob Launey in a Lucky Strike ad.
Bob Launey in a Lucky Strike ad.

Bob's idea for his agency was ahead of its time, and even today most agencies don't do what he did. The agency, Launey, Hachmann & Harris, did all the usual stuff, but it also did licensing. (Bob also appeared in some print ads while at BBDO-- for Hart Shaffner & Marx, Lucky Strike and the New York Times.)

"We treat licensing like a package-goods product," Bob told the New York Times in 1995. "As a licensing agent, we market the licensor's product for a long life. We're really doing brand management." Whatever Bob and his agency was doing, it worked: licensing was the agency's primary revenue producer. His agency, in fact, was the creative force behind a plan to sell a bracelet on a famous soap opera that it was hoped would create a groundbreaking new revenue stream for broadcasters.

But first, the royal connection -- and it is a fortuitous one. Out of the blue a British ad agency executive phoned Bob and asked if he wanted to do some work for them in the U.S. The adman, Martin Powell, had plucked Bob's name out of an agency book and thought he would be a good match. Turns out they were; they did some joint direct-marketing projects over the years.

When Powell folded his agency, he and his wife started a TV production company that made kids' cartoons. They produced "Pottsworth & Co.," one of the most popular cartoon shows in the BBC at the time.

So when her Royal Highness the Dutchess of York was looking for a licensing agent to negotiate tie-in deals for her children's book character, "Budgie the Little Helicopter," she selected Powell's company, Sleepy Kids. It marked the first time a commercial deal had been struck between the Royal Family and a private licensing company.

Launey goes to bat for the New York Times.
Launey goes to bat for the New York Times.

Naturally, when the Powells were ready to bring Budgie to the colonies, they selected Bob's agency as U.S. licensing and marketing agent. Not bad for a Brooklyn boy whose small agency was picked out of a hat!

Bob's agency signed 16 licenses to manufacture Budgie toys, apparel and other merchandise, including Hallmark for greeting cards and Spring Industries for children's bedding.

It was Bob's wife, Deborah Fineout Launey, who actually came up with an idea of selling a bracelet tied to a popular soap. "I pulled it out of the idea file as a concept I thought was perfect for 'The Guiding Light' anniversary," she told me. "When [the soap opera's then-producer Procter & Gamble] agreed to the concept, we completed the design development with P&G in mind and with their input, as we would with any client creative product. A key cornerstone of the concept was that the bracelet product itself not carry the 'Guiding Light' logo, something we had to fight pretty hard for as it was not the norm of the time."

Bob ran all the marketing and strategy and tactical development --how the bracelet would be tested, packaged and its price point, along with advertising, media rollout, publicity and strategy for selling the bracelet. He wrote all the communication elements, including an effective direct response ad (Hank Hachmann art directed), and negotiated all the media.

Launey wears Hart, Schaffner & Marx.
Launey wears Hart, Schaffner & Marx.

Bob set the specifications for all the necessary analysis of all the elements as the program progressed. The bracelet was designed to be self-liquidating, and if the program had continued it had a good chance at long-term success, Deborah remembered.

This was revolutionary: It would be the first time a product was used in a TV show storyline and offered to viewers. CBS had high hopes the jewelry would "alter the graying economic model of broadcasting companies. If all goes well, the network plans to sell a line of trinkets, clothes and furniture with carefully orchestrated tie-ins to plots and characters in the TV programs," according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

It didn't work out that way, although the item was profitable. Deborah Fineout-Launey told me CBS received hundreds of letters from viewers saying how much they loved the bracelet, and the agency compiled "a very large file of what we called 'love letters' that were testament that this type of approach built goodwill among the viewer." But CBS' grand plan was never put into action.

The official line was that the bracelet was done as a one-time offer during the "Guiding Light" 60th anniversary period.

But in reality, according to published accounts at the time, the obstacle that most blocked it from becoming a long-term commitment was that the writers of the soap rebelled at having a commercial product as part of their storyline with the offer being made right in the show.

Bob gained the rights to market the bracelet after the "Guiding Light" promotion, and the bracelet is still being sold today.

Who knows--if the CBS brass had cut the writers in on a piece of the action, today the upfronts might include trinkets that could be auctioned off as part of the programs. And Bob's vision of turning his ad agency into a hybrid advertising-licensing agency could have become a reality.

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