To support one of the most widely recognizable characters in the world, this licensor emphasizes customer service. In the 1970s, when Jim Davis launched licensing company Paws, Inc. to support his comic strip Garfield, one of the most widely syndicated and recognizable strips in the world, the licensing industry in the US was limited to a few big players. To compete, he knew this small team and its big character would need an edge.
“We understand that we’re in the entertainment industry; our character is here to make people laugh,” said Davis. “Our success comes from unyielding focus on the character and a dedication to customer service that we think is unmatched in the licensing industry all these years later.”
Jim and his wife, Jill Davis, who serves as vice president of licensing, are involved personally in just about every step of the licensing process with every licensee. They personally oversee management of the company’s art banks, often go to stores to peruse the section of a new licensed product to get a sense of how the Garfield brand can help sell it, and always make an effort to understand the market the licensee will be selling to.
In 2009, in the midst of the worst recession in decades, Paws inked 110 new licensing contracts, which vice president of sales Cliff Hackney indicated is a typical year for the firm. That number does reflect a number of short-term contracts, such as fast-food promotions that typically only last a few months, but Hackney said the team at Paws works hard to make every relationship a long-term one.
“It’s not only easier, but more profitable for both sides, when you maintain a long-term licensing relationship, so we do a lot of due diligence up front to find companies that fit well with the Garfield brand and people that we like working with,” Jim explained.
Convenience is king
Hackney said licensees are usually surprised that such a huge brand is so easy to work with.
“We’re not a Disney or a Turner with lots of characters to use or new characters always coming out; the key differentiator is how convenient we make it to do business with us,” he said. “For example, we encourage our new licensees to have a creative session here with our team and meet with Jim and Jill.”
Jill added that when Jim launched Paws, one of the firm’s first orders of business was developing a cutting-edge art retrieval system to provide previously unheard of convenience for licensees. Hackney said the firm was likely the first to have all its art available online when the system went live, about 15 years ago.
The system, Jill explained, includes a huge number of art banks organized around themes: sports, holidays, props like pencils, and even Garfield attitude. There are a number of ways Paws keeps the art banks fresh. For one, the Davises go through the libraries once a quarter, pruning pieces that are out of character or assigning pieces for refreshing. When a big event approaches, like the World Cup, the team will also refresh any art pieces associated with that event.
Furthermore, any time the firm creates a special order for a client, a team reviews it see if it’s generic and translatable enough to go into the banks. Finally, Jill said the company’s account executives are proactive, communicating constantly with licensees to hear about new themes or campaigns they are considering.
The beauty of Paws’ art retrieval system is the speed at which all of that can be accomplished; Jill said the firm nearly always approves art use for a specific project in less than 48 hours.
“For us to compete internationally with a team of 44 people in the cornfields of Indiana, nothing is more important than a state-of-the-art system like this,” she said.
New projects and the Garfield legacy
The biggest news to come from Paws in 2009, however, was the launch of a new Garfield Show in the US after a successful run in Europe. The show, animated in CGI, was created by the firm’s long-time publishing partner Dargaud in France and is currently in production for its second season on Cartoon Network in most major markets around the world.
“The show is designed for children under 14, but the network is tracking viewers as young as two, and we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to introduce a whole new generation to Garfield,” Jill said. “The show is refocusing our licensing efforts on that demographic, and we have a few children’s clothing and toy projects in the works.”
But next year will be all about a unique offering from Paws: the Garfield musical, which will debut at Jim’s alma mater, Ball State University, in January. The musical, which Jim said is definitely not the typical skip-and-wave production with actors in furry suits, has a simple premise: Garfield and Odie will travel through the traditional Garfield strip and cross over into other well-known strips on various adventures. The defining feature of the production will be a cartoonist live on stage drawing the scenery as the performance unfolds, using a Cintiq pad that will project onto a screen behind the actors. Jim said he’s especially excited because he’s always considered cartooning to be a sort of performance art—this musical brings the cartoon to life in a whole new way.
In the meantime, Jim and Jill are also working quietly on what they expect will be Garfield’s legacy in years to come. It’s the Professor Garfield Foundation, which promotes literacy through engaging, education materials the organization provides for free online. This year, the group partnered with the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation to develop materials specifically designed for kids coping with learning disabilities, as Schwab did as a child learning to read with dyslexia.
“Charles, like so many other kids I’ve met over the years, told me he learned to read through comics,” Jim said. “We hope to provide fun, interesting material to help kids in the same situation overcome their challenges and learn to love reading through this foundation, and working for this organization is perhaps the most fun we have each day.”