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License to Laugh

The comic strip “Mutts” appears in more than 700 newspapers around the world. For thirteen years, it has made the most of its few inches of daily space, paying stylistic homage to everyone from Janis Joplin to Paul Cézanne while trumpeting environmental and animal causes in ways beyond cozy “happiness is a warm puppy” sentiments.All that and it manages to be funny, too, like when the strip’s co-star Mooch falls in love with a pink sock (“It’s imposshible to love and be wise,” muses the lisping cat) or when Mooch’s canine pal Earl confronts a rotting jack-o’-lantern one November day. “Who’s laughing now?” taunts Earl.

A lot of people are laughing where “Mutts” is concerned. T. R. Shepard III is, too, but not unreservedly. As president of King Features Syndicate, distributor of “Mutts” and seventy other internationally syndicated comic strips, Shepard anticipates a lot of hard work in launching “Mutts” in a bigger way, specifically with licensing.

“In terms of selling comics to the newspapers, right now it’s a business of stacking nickels and dimes,” says Shepard, who has gone by the name “Rocky” ever since he was a Greenwich kid getting into scuffles at North Street School. “I don’t know any cartoonists who said they would walk away if I brought them a licensing deal.”

Some struggling King cartoonists work second jobs waiting tables or teaching school. For them, as with Shepard, real success rests with licensing the comic strips and their characters. For Shepard, whose other comic properties at King Features Syndicate, a division of Hearst Corporation, include “Popeye,” “Betty Boop” and “Blondie,” marketing opportunities that translate characters into currency are where big profits get made. That means, for example, using Popeye’s name and winking mug in concert with a national fried-chicken franchise or putting Betty Boop’s face on just about any product you can name.

Betty Boop alone accounts for one billion dollars a year in gross retail transactions, according to Mark Fleischer of Fleischer Studios, which owns the character and allows King to broker licensing.

“Exploit is sometimes considered a bad word,” Shepard explains. “I don’t consider it a bad word if it’s done carefully and with integrity. I tell cartoonists, ‘If you allow us to exploit your property and do licensing, you can quit your job as a waiter or waitress and concentrate on just being the wonderful cartoonist you are.’ ”

Marketing “Mutts” has its challenges. Its owner and creator Patrick McDonnell is a vegan who demands organic cotton and recyclable packaging for any Mutts merchandise. “Any licensing I do has to be earth-friendly,” Shepard explains. But with that understood, he is on board with the concept.

At the moment, both McDonnell and Shepard are eyeing the enlargement of Mutts’s ongoing merchandizing presence at Wal-Mart stores. While the retailer commits to environmentally friendly business practices, Shepard shifts awareness for “Mutts” from newspapers to more than 200 million Wal-Mart customers. “That’s a huge opportunity,” Shepard says. “That could be bigger than ‘Popeye’ or ‘Betty Boop’ on an individual basis.”

Shepard’s enthusiasm, as always, is palpable. His large hands are always in motion, forming circles or pyramids as he explains a complex marketing or distribution concept. With his piercing green eyes, chiseled face and full salt-and-pepper brush cut, he reminds you of a young Burt Bacharach. At fifty-six, his lean frame hardened by years of playing his favorite sport, hockey, he could pass for someone much younger, though he is, in fact, the father of three and proud grandfather of three more.

He lives just outside Greenwich, in Rye, with his wife and sweetheart since teenage days, Peggy, whose large family, the O’Neals, was also Greenwich bred.

For King Features Syndicate, there is no better time to be in the licensing business. While the privately held company does not generally release figures, Shepard admits that “Betty Boop” alone accounts for some 700 licensees. “We have a very robust and profitable business,” he says.

The challenge lies in the terrain. Newspaper syndication hasn’t been the same since the slow death of afternoon newspapers, the rising cost of newsprint and the interloping growth of the Internet. King Features, with a 40 percent market share thanks to strips like “Blondie,” “Hagar The Horrible” and “Beetle Bailey,” is also a prisoner of its own success. “Space is tight, and it’s tighter when you have so many other properties competing for that space,” Shepard admits. The answer, he says, could lie in marketing the comic strips on the Web; yet finding the right financial formula remains elusive, something the Hearst veteran knows too well from a brief stint running Hearst Interactive in the late 1990s, just before taking over King Features Syndicate in 1999.

In addition to comics, King Features also syndicates puzzles, games and columns like “Hints From Heloise” and “Click and Clack Talk Cars,” which account for significant newspaper sales, though not as much as the comics.

“A lot of newspaper editors feel they’ve got staff who can write these columns,” Shepard explains. “One of the worst comments I hear, and I hear it quite often, is they have a choice between buying your content and laying off someone in the newsroom.”

Another hurdle is finding the right balance between maintaining successful older properties while scouting new talent. Of the eight most widely circulated strips in King’s arsenal, each with more than 1,000 newspapers running them daily, all but two are what might be termed “legacy strips,” thriving for a generation or more.

“We are not going to survive on our Blondies and our Hagars and our Beetle Baileys forever,” Shepard avers. “We need to put new product in the pipeline. And our sales organization needs to believe in that philosophy and be able to market and sell that philosophy.”

When it comes to inspiriting a sales force, Shepard’s the right man for the job. From his days fresh out of college selling Eveready batteries, he has always been hard-charging in that regard, even now, as he sits in his kitchen, its bay window overlooking a quiet estuary of Long Island Sound.

“I could sell you that if I wanted to,” he says, pointing to a dish towel beside a stovetop. Associates at King say he’s not kidding.

“He’s a big promoter of promotion,” says comics editor Brendan Burford. “I’m not going to say he’s easy to work for, but I really like a manager with his qualities. He’s deferential to people but at the same time, a solid leader who’s accountable for his actions.”

Fleischer notes how, when a new Betty Boop promotional idea comes in, Shepard will call a meeting of top King Features Syndicate and Fleischer Studios personnel to see if it works within Betty’s “sexy but wholesome” marketing strategy. “He really is excellent in bringing out in people their best ideas,” Fleischer notes.

Keith McCloat, King Features’ vice president and general manager, likens Rocky to a professional football coach “who wants to will his team to victory every time.” Like New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick? No, McCloat says, not him. “Belichick’s pretty insular. I would compare him more to Bill Parcells in that he’s extroverted about it. He enjoys the business, the people. He has a terrific reputation in the industry.”

Sports analogies fly thick and fast around Rocky Shepard, who spent his high school and college days as a standout varsity athlete in three sports and tried out for the National Hockey League right out of college. “It helped me understand how much better the pros are than the amateurs,” he says of joining training camp with the California Golden Seals after graduating from Amherst in 1973 as the varsity team’s captain. “But I gave it a good run, and it gave me an even greater appreciation for the game that remains today.”

Shepard is general manager of the Rye Rangers, a group of forty-five men between the ages of thirty and sixty playing from October through the spring at such events as the Olde Crabs Invitational in Danbury.

“I play tennis, jog a little, work out three times a week in the summer,” he explains. “But that’s mainly so when I hit the ice in October, my body won’t fall apart.”
Teamwork is important to Shepard, something he has been nourished by and nourished in turn, whether playing team sports at the Greenwich Country Day School or the Taft School, or when he helped coach the Greenwich High School varsity hockey team. He maintains that mind-set at King Features.

“There’s no reason a business cannot be fun,” he says. “Every day, I try to have fun with my folks. I think by sharing enthusiasm, you bring out their better qualities. Those are qualities attractive to the newspaper editors we call on.”

One day a year, Shepard leads his employees down from their offices at the Hearst Tower on West 57th Street to a public park where the staff is split into four teams, competing in activities much like you would see at summer camp.

“Rocky’s competitive nature flows over,” says George Haeberlein, King Features’ vice president of syndication sales. “Being competitive himself, he expects others to be competitive. We play pickup basketball, for example, and mix it up good. That’s the way he likes it.”

An important aspect of Shepard’s job is working with cartoonists and writers. That took on greater significance in March 2007, when King’s editor-in-chief Jay Kennedy drowned while on vacation in Costa Rica. Kennedy had been the point person for King’s stable of creative talent, much loved for his fairness and appreciation of their work. “It was a devastating loss,” Shepard says. “He and I were partners. I took over the editorial function. Before, I did that in conjunction with Jay, but he took care of so much of that, there wasn’t very much I had to do. He was so good.”

“I was very touched by the way Rocky handled the transition,” says Jerry Scott, a friend of Kennedy’s and co-author of two top King strips, “Baby Blues” and “Zits.” “It gave me a whole lot of peace the way Rocky went about filling that position.”

“Baby Blues” runs in 1,100 newspapers worldwide, “Zits” in 1,600. Shepard is proud of the circulation success of both, but feels more could be done in terms of merchandizing. “There’s not a lot of companies out there that would like to call their product ‘Zits,’ ” he reports. “For an acne company, it may be very apropos, but for a food company or clothing? It’s very challenging.”

Jerry Scott says he appreciates the marketing opportunities Shepard seeks out for his strips. That sentiment is echoed by another of King Features’ top cartoonists, Mort Walker of Stamford, creator of King’s third-highest circulated comic strip “Beetle Bailey” (1,800 newspapers) and “Hi and Lois” (1,100 newspapers). “Extra money is always nice,” says Walker, currently working on a Beetle Bailey animation project aimed at young children.

Walker started “Beetle Bailey” in September 1950, one month before the launch of the most famous non-King strip, “Peanuts,” eventually made comic-strip licensing a multimillion-dollar business. Over the years, Walker has fought to gain ownership control of “Beetle Bailey” and has had his clashes over the strip’s content. Through it all, he maintains King Features has been a valued partner and credits Rocky with running a good ship.
“We play golf together,” says Walker. “He’s not like a boss; more like a friend.” When Shepard introduced himself to Mort Walker as King Features’ new president, Walker instantly liked what he saw: “He looked me right in the eye.”

Walker knew Shepard’s parents, who along with Walker were members of the Belle Haven Club when all three of them lived in Greenwich. Father Tom junior was a magazine executive who became publisher of Look, a national magazine that competed with Life. Then, when Shepard was at Amherst, Look folded. Shepard vowed to stay away from publishing and decided to enter professional sports instead. But the pro sports dream didn’t last. Neither did Shepard’s vow regarding publishing. In 1978 Hearst approached him with a job opening in its magazines division, initially selling advertising for Cosmopolitan. In the next two decades, he worked at eight different Hearst magazines, his last seven as publisher, first of Country Living, then Redbook.

In 1997 he was put in charge of Hearst Interactive, running a women’s portal called HomeArts. It was designed as a repository for online content in connection with Hearst’s women’s magazines and was supported only by Internet advertising.

“I used to call on interactive ad agencies. There were young folks there with earrings and flip-flops, sometimes sitting on the conference table. And in walks ‘the Suit.’ I think there was a role for me at Interactive to bring a maturity level to the business. I know from time to time it may not have been appreciated by the folks I was calling on.”

In 1999 Hearst Interactive folded, and Shepard found himself “a Hearst free agent.” Ray Joslin of Greenwich, then president of Hearst’s entertainment syndication group, including both its cable television properties and King Features, tapped Shepard for his current job. “He was the right guy for the position,” recalls Joslin, today a consultant to Hearst. “He is smart, has a good level of creativity and handles people very well. He’s directed, has a purpose and a point. And I like him.”

Shepard saw much to change. Old-timer salesmen at King Features were falling out of touch with newspaper editors, many of them women who were not amused by what they sometimes took as sexist humor.

“They understand the importance of the legacy strips,” Shepard says, “but they are also looking for something new, maybe comic strips that reach out to women, young mothers, comic strips that are more topical.”

King Features’ oldest strip, “Katzenjammer Kids,” has run since 1897. At the other end of the spectrum are new strips like “Arctic Circle,” which focuses on global warming, and “The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee,” which King Features’ promotional literature describes as “an intelligent, left-leaning comic strip” commenting on social, economic and political concerns.

Every year, King Features chooses three new strips to offer newspapers. Sometimes Shepard begins his marketing work well before a selected strip has made its debut: “We brought out a strip a couple of years ago called ‘Retail’ about folks who work in stores,” he says. “Before we sold it to one newspaper, we did a book deal.”

For comics aficionados, like “Mutts” creator McDonnell, King Features Syndicate is a valued partner not only for its marketing savvy but its legacy. He recalls “Krazy Kat,” a seminal strip of the early twentieth century that ran for years despite widespread popular indifference, mainly because King’s then-owner, William Randolph Hearst, enjoyed “Krazy Kat” personally.

“They do have the landmark strips, which gives them a really strong background, but they’ve made some really good decisions with new strips, like ‘Zits,’ ‘Baby Blues’ and ‘Mutts,’ ” McDonnell says.

Shepard has no trouble staying inspired by his work. “I think a lot of cartoonists have faith in us and respect what we do,” he says. “Their day may involve getting up, reading four or five newspapers while having a cup of coffee, and then leaving to go to an office or work in an attic or cottage. And they will work there eight hours straight, to come up with a concept that will strike the fancy of newspaper readers. Knowing they work that hard, I need to work as hard to sell their properties, to make sure all their hard work is beneficial to them. That’s what makes me feel good every day.”