Dead celebrities have so many advantages over living ones—from a branding and marketing perspective, that is. Their faces, figures and gestures are already seared into our minds, yet those images can easily be repurposed and polished to promote new products or events. A dead celeb won’t object to being used, either, or damage a brand by hurtling off the rails à la LiLo or Tiger Woods.
And these departed icons never age: Marilyn Monroe is just as beautiful now as she was in 1962. “It’s very sad, but Marilyn died at a very young age,” says Jamie Salter. “She’s gonna be 36 forever.”
It’s Salter’s job to ensure that Monroe’s commercial cachet also stays robust forever. As CEO and chairman of Authentic Brands Group LLC, he owns her estate. He’s at the forefront of the specialized business of representing celebrity estates, a business levitated of late by expanded legal rights. In the public mind, Marilyn is peacefully frozen in time as a goddess in a white dress over a breezy subway grate. But behind the scenes there’s been a complex courtroom imbroglio over the rights to her image.
And Salter must also contend with the matter of cheesy representations. Icons are not made in the five-and-dime, after all; they’re made in the luxury aisles.
Marilyn Monroe, it appears, needs a rebranding.
Trouble Marilyn may be, but it’s the kind of trouble Jamie Salter revels in. His career path looks quirky, but there’s a theme that makes sense of it: an ability to spot opportunities amid disarray. A native of Toronto, Salter, now 49, started out small in sporting-goods marketing in the 1980s, quickly tapping into the surging popularity of snowboarding, then still almost an outlaw sport. In 1992, he joined forces with two Seattle entrepreneurs to found board manufacturer Ride Inc., a Nasdaq wonder that went public in early 1994 and saw its share price shoot up by about 1,500% within 18 months, then plummet thanks to slower than expected growth. Salter stepped down as CEO in 1996.
After several other sporting goods-related ventures over the next decade—successful ones—Salter and Hilco Trading LLC, a privately owned American firm, founded Hilco Consumer Capital LC in 2006. Hilco Consumer Capital is essentially a liquidator—it swoops in and buys troubled or outright bankrupt brands, then tries to revive them with new licensing deals and partnerships. Under Salter, it bought, gussied up and sold off several brands: The Bombay Company furniture and the Tommy Armour and RAM golf equipment lines. It retained and continues to refurbish others, including Polaroid and Miss America Properties, producer of the beauty pageant.
Salter displayed a flair for hype at Hilco. One of his boldest moves was hiring none other than Lady Gaga as creative director for Polaroid. Hilco and a financial partner, Gordon Brothers Brands LLC, bought the company’s assets in a bankruptcy auction in April, 2009. In January, 2011, the pop diva introduced the first of Polaroid’s Grey Label products: a digital camera and printer that spit out instant photos similar to the Polaroids of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as sunglasses that sport a built-in camera. “They really let me put my hands in there and design this shit myself,” Lady Gaga said.
But a similar gambit failed in the case of Halston. Hilco acquired the dead designer’s name in 2007. In early 2010, he and other executives hired Sarah Jessica Parker as the label’s “chief creative officer”—a four-year deal reportedly worth $13 million (all currency in U.S. dollars). A year later, she was gone.
Salter is tight-lipped about why he resigned from Hilco later in 2010. Reports said he was in a dispute over compensation with the parent company, Hilco Trading. But Salter has nothing but praise for the company. The overriding attraction for him at Authentic Brands seems to be that he’s the only guy in charge. Having invested $250 million, private-equity giant Leonard Green & Partners owns a majority of the equity, but it has given Salter operating authority as chairman and CEO.
Salter retained one file in moving from Hilco to Authentic Brands. Although the deal had come from an unlikely corner, it pointed to his future with Marilyn.
In 2008, Salter was introduced to Cedella Marley, daughter of reggae icon Bob Marley. She was acting on behalf of her mother and siblings; they needed help with a mighty brand that too many people thought was communal property. Salter estimated at the time that counterfeiters around the world were selling as much as $600 million a year in unauthorized Marley recordings, T-shirts and other merchandise. Taking on a contract to manage the brand with Cedella, Salter vowed that Hilco would spend “as much money as it takes to stop them.” He won’t disclose how big a slice of merchandise revenue Marley’s estate now earns in royalties on officially licensed products, but estimates range from 5% to 10%.