Consumer Products

Fred Gaffney roast attracts the kids industry’s finest

No single kids entertainment executive can bring together a large group of industry competitors with as high a level of bonhomie as Fred Gaffney did at his KidScreen Hall of Fame roast on February 13, 2003. But then, there's arguably no single exec who can match the Gaffney International Licensing CEO's 'if you don't go, you don't get' approach to the business.
March 1, 2003

No single kids entertainment executive can bring together a large group of industry competitors with as high a level of bonhomie as Fred Gaffney did at his KidScreen Hall of Fame roast on February 13, 2003. But then, there’s arguably no single exec who can match the Gaffney International Licensing CEO’s ‘if you don’t go, you don’t get’ approach to the business.

‘Fred is well-known for attending almost every Toy Fair in the world…he’s so busy that he plans on cloning himself just to get more work done,’ joked former Nelvana president Michael Hirsh, who has known Gaffney for 20 years.

Out of the ‘great warmth and affection’ Nelvana has for Gaffney (and because Hirsh had some time to fill), an animated homage to Gaffney was presented in Top 10 format (which Hirsh narrowed to six based on the value of the Aussie dollar):

The Top Six Freddies

6. Fred is the only person in customs claiming nothing with 100 suitcases.

5. Fred is the only guy who calls people on Christmas to see if they’re working.

4. Fred’s retail tours are now covered by most medical insurance plans.

3. Fred has the only business card on the bestseller list.

2. The only thing more confusing than Fred’s travel schedule is his sleep pattern.

1. Despite outward similarities to the Tazmanian devil, Fred is a devoted family man, compassionate friend and dedicated business partner.

As the credits on Hirsh’s presentation rolled to the tune of Do the Freddy, Aussie sensation The Wiggles – in the midst of their world tour – took the virtual stage with a long-distance dedication to Gaffney, followed in person by Gary Knell, CEO of Sesame Workshop, the client that launched Gaffney’s business 26 years ago.

Knell also brought a Top 10 list of things the Workshop loves most about Gaffney up to the podium – but couldn’t resist adding two more for good measure:

12. Fred was the first person to violate the Sesame Street trademark – by using the characters on his business card.

11. Fred still refers to us to this day as CTW. Fred, it’s Sesame Workshop.

10. Fred is never focused on our business. He’s got about 40 proper- ties, and he only ever talks about the damn Wiggles.

9. He calls everyone at Sesame Workshop at the same time and leaves a message on everyone’s voicemail. And you’re never sure who should call him back!

8. He invites competitors to your meetings, particularly at MIP: ‘Oh, have you met the folks that produce Barney? They’re bloody great! Tell all your trade secrets!’

7. You never know where Fred is, but he has the appearance of availability – that business card with all those hotel phone numbers…

6. He makes you accommodate his schedule.

5. He knows everyone in the world.

4. He plays Sesame Street music when you call Gaffney International. Now, Fred, do you have Thomas the Tank Engine music for when David Jacobs calls? Is there a master control room at Gaffney International? ‘Quick – Gary Knell’s on the phone! Hit number six!’

3. Keep having kids, Fred.

Support the franchise!

2. He gives the same gift to everybody – that Alligator hat, the boomerang…

1. He has found the best way to discipline children – you hire them.

All kidding aside, Knell paid tribute to a partnership more than a quarter-century old by presenting Gaffney with a framed caricature depicting him standing atop the world, suitcases and cell phones in hand.

But for all the fulsomeness of the Hirsh and Knell, ABC Enterprises director Grahame Grassby likely could have hosted the roast single-handedly, having been present for or privy to the details of the funniest and wackiest moments of Gaffney’s career. Grassby couldn’t be present at the roast, but sent in a hilarious video tribute in talk show format.

In testament to Gaffney’s unconventional business prowess, Grassby recounted the time the two friends launched Bananas in Pyjamas to 300 suits in Tokyo. Gaffney roped Grassby into singing the Bananas theme song to the group, ‘who immediately thought it was karaoke and gave us a standing ovation. In 15 minutes, our [Japanese] licensing agent NHK had signed up 15 licensees.’

While Grassby claims that Gaffney’s best quality is his generosity, he also says that his worst habit is retail therapy. ‘In a Toys ‘R’ Us in Tokyo, Fred bought about 1,000 items in one spree,’ Grassby recalled. ‘What no one knew was that the cash registers can only handle 999 purchases in one transaction. So on the 1,000th purchase, Fred broke the entire Toys ‘R’ Us computer system.’

As for the craziest thing Grassby has known Gaffney to do, the ABC Australia exec said: ‘Fred, his wife Irene and I were in L.A. Fred had just purchased a Road Warrior for Irene in Australia, but that model didn’t have the same wheels she had seen on one in L.A. So Fred went into the dealership and bought four new wheels [as a trade-in]. The next time the Gaffney girls flew to L.A. from Melbourne, each of them had to take a wheel and ship it from the airport.’

Not to be outdone, David Hendy, CEO of Aussie toyco Funtastic, delivered an airport anecdote of his own. Gaffney once asked Hendy to take some luggage home from L.A. Hendy asked if there was anything in the bags he should know about. ‘Fred said no, so I get to customs and say I have nothing to declare,’ said Hendy. ‘I’ve got four suitcases, so they pull me aside and out come the product samples. I think I’m doing okay, but then the dog food comes out, and the parakeet food…and then they’re putting me in jail.’

Once the laughter died down, Hendy turned serious. ‘Fred has a passion for this business. Most people go on holidays – Fred doesn’t,’ said Hendy. ‘This is his love, his life. I think it’s a beautiful thing to see. I couldn’t do it. I don’t know many who could.’

Because you couldn’t fit all of Gaffney’s close friends and business partners in one room (or even one hotel, we suspect), KidScreen solicited some congratulatory commentary from a few Aussies who couldn’t make it to New York:

Cassie Young, group business director, Creata Promotion

Having a business relationship with Fred guarantees you the latest information on what’s hot and what’s not, but most importantly, how you can get a piece of the action. The pace is fast and furious, and no one else but Fred could pull it off so dynamically. Congratulations Fred on your induction into the KidScreen Hall of Fame. You are an absolute legend.

David Harris, GM of publishing, Scholastic Australia

One year at Bologna Book Fair, Fred invited me to join him and several others for dinner at the pricey Grand Baglioni. I took with me an editor who was attending for the first time and was carried away with the glamor of it. Glancing nervously at the menu’s high-priced dishes, Fred was perhaps having second thoughts about inviting such a large group. ‘I think we’ll all have the bean soup to begin with,’ Fred declared loudly, hoping to discourage other initiatives. All politely complied except my editor. ‘No,’ she said firmly, ‘I want the caviar.’ The look on Fred’s face when he discovered to his horror that the caviar was US$150 a serving was a sight to behold. ‘Of course,’ he replied, as polite and magnanimous as ever.

Maureen Plavsic, CEO of broadcast TV, Seven Network (Australia)

I’ve known Ian (Fred) Gaffney for 25 years. He is a totally unique individual, passionate about everything he does, completely over the top, and impossible to ignore. He is one of life’s great contributors. Congratulations Fred on everything you’ve achieved.

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