Rick Merriam isn’t exactly a stranger to startups or launches. After building a foundation of understanding about sports licensing working with the United States Olympic Festival in 1995 — his first job out of graduate school — Merriam became the assistant athletic director at Colorado College, where he launched its first licensing program.
His licensing résumé also includes a stint at Licensing Resource Group (LRG), where founders Lewis Hardy and Dick Rademaker enlisted Merriam to to open the agency’s northeast region office in 2009.
“My six years with LRG and subsequent tenure with Learfield Licensing Pertners were phenomenal, highlighted by meeting an incredible group of people — agency colleagues, college and university administrators, licensees, manufacturers and retailers,” he says.
Now, as founder of recently launched licensing agency Exemplar Associates, Merriam finds himself back in “launch” mode. His vision for the Exemplar? Providing premier licensing services to clients and pairing purposeful principles with technical expertise. And if that draws the admiration of other agencies along the way, he insists that’s just fine by him.
“I am confident we are the best option for licensors seeking cutting-edge IP administration and for colleges and universities that define success beyond pure athletic achievement,” Merriam says. “There are distinct differences between building a licensing program around athletic teams and licensing mature brands. Our pathways towards quality growth reach far beyond raising royalty rates, assessing ever-escalating administrative fees and jamming more products from more licensees into more retailers. And as our name implies, we aspire to be worthy of emulation.”
SportsFan Retailer recently sat down with Merriam to discuss issues in collegiate licensing, agency consolidation and more. Following is what he had to say:
SportsFan Retailer: In a big-picture view, what do you see as the most pressing issue in the collegiate licensing business. How can that issue be solved?
Rick Merriam: Actually, I see two primary issues that are pressing. First, there is an overwhelming, longstanding tendency toward simply “checking a box” with respect to responsible manufacturing. Got a CSR person on staff? Check. Got a code of conduct? Check. Signed the accord? Check … and so on. There are about 4,000 active college licensees contracting production to over 25,000 global factories, and all are attempting to implement dozens of codes of conduct with respect international worker and labor rights. Progress has been made in this area, but we need better solutions for this critically important issue. The second issue involves navigating and shaping the next phase of collegiate licensing. New levels of sophistication and specialization are required to manage and create future growth — proper growth.
SFR: Consolidation seems to be a trend now, especially on the agency side. Why do you think this has happened and do you think it will continue?
RM: Money is why this is happening. I’ve been around long enough to know why one company might acquire another or why a private-equity firm puts money behind an enterprise. These new ownership structures are placing tremendous pressure on the individual agency units to increase their profitability. I’m curious to see how the conglomerates integrate and activate their accumulated businesses, and to see if they can actually offer anything substantially new and exciting before the equity groups decide to split them up, take them public or simply sell them. At the end of the day, profit margins are driving the decision-making of these “investments” and not necessarily the clients’ best interests.
SFR: In collegiate licensing, where do you see the biggest needs that institutions have? How can that need be met in a better manner?
RM: In my own experiences, first at Colorado College and then at Brown University, we wanted personal attention, thoughtful analysis, customized programs, transparency and assurances that our agency was always acting in our best interests. Every school has its own set of goals and priorities. A licensing administrator who works in an institution’s legal office may have different priorities than an administrator working in the athletics office, and a “Power 5” conference school may have different licensing ambitions than an Ivy League school. Exemplar Associates is positioned to strategically and uniquely address our clients’ needs and priorities by deploying advanced technology, staying nimble and specialized, and always working toward ambitious, long-range goals.
SFR: One school of thought is that a smaller agency can give more intimate attention to institutions when it comes to client services. Is this still true, in your opinion?
RM: Without a doubt. You mentioned trends in a previous question and we’re seeing a trend toward and demand for boutique services and more intimate, trusted relationships. This has already happened in other major licensing sectors such as fashion and entertainment. Instead of stretching a mile wide and only going an inch deep in a clearinghouse or one-size-fits-all model, we’re providing sophisticated, purposeful rights management while pivoting our clients upward from many traditional industry practices.
SFR: Exemplar recently signed a deal with Columbia University. Discuss why this was a big win and how it helps lay the foundation for the future of the agency.
RM: Columbia is one of the finest universities in the world with global name recognition. Their decision validated much of what we’ve talked about during this conversation — boutique services, leadership toward new approaches, sophisticated management and trust. Having a prestigious university client will undoubtedly help open doors with other properties — it already has — and illustrates that there really is an appetite for an agency like Exemplar Associates.