Q&A: Dave Thomas

LOS ANGELES When one mentions the name Dave Thomas in relation to advertising, we think of the late Wendy’s founder, who had a penchant for starring in ads for his fast-food chain — not the Bob and Doug McKenzie guy. However, Dave Thomas, the comedian, actor and writer best known for his work on comedy sketch show SCTV, got his start on Madison Avenue. And in 2001, he co-founded Animax Entertainment, a digital studio that creates animation and other short-form content — often for brands.

From the Great White North to Hollywood (actually, Animax is in Van Nuys, Calif.), Thomas and his team of writers and animators plot out series such as Slotcar, Popzilla and the upcoming Datemares, which will be humor/horror story snippets from the women’s POV. Animax will develop iPhone games to teach preschoolers foreign languages for partner Little Pim and is developing a virtual world for the property Planet Color. The company also produces Bob & Doug, an animated series based on a couple of SCTV’s best-known characters. It’s currently airing in a block with The Simpsons throughout Canada.

Adweek: So how did you wind up in the world of advertising? This was in Toronto after you graduated from college. You were an English major?

Dave Thomas: Yep — English Lit. I drifted into an MA program because I couldn’t get a job. I started writing TV sketches and that wasn’t regular income. I [had been] the editor of the student newspaper, and I went [back] to the paper and mocked up some fake ads with headlines and copy and I went through the Yellow Pages and called up all the ad agencies in Toronto. By the time I got to “M” and McCann, I got hired. A guy named Harry Yates, an American copywriter, was brought up to McCann Toronto as a creative director. He came out of DDB. He gave me this book called The Advertising Man by Jack Dillon and said, “Read this, and if you still want the job, come in Monday at 9 o’clock.” It’s a really depressing book and it ends with the hero having lost his wife and job and everything, lying in a pool of vomit. I said [laughing], “That doesn’t scare me!”

This was in the early ’70s. What campaigns did you work on?

This was ’73. It was still sort of the Mad Men era, only the clothes were a little different. They started me in retail — which is the low end of the totem pole — on the Coca-Cola account. I got a commercial promotion and they were going to do a TV spot. And it had 28 seconds of legal copy for a 30-second spot … good luck trying to turn that into something interesting. I came up with this concept of the old weatherman from The Tonight Show that Don Knotts used to do. I pitched it to Coke and they loved it. And they said, “Who do you want to do this?” And I said, “Tim Conway,” figuring they’d never get him or send me to L.A. to shoot it. Well, they did. Then the unthinkable happened: The promotion was a success. Coca-Cola was so happy with it the president of Coca-Cola Canada said, “I like that guy! Put him on the account!” So they moved the head writer off the account and moved me up. I’m not even in the agency business three months yet and don’t even know what I’m doing.

And then what happened?

The feeling of Coca-Cola Canada at the time was there was a kind of pro-nationalism feeling — they didn’t feel they could just pick up and run the U.S. spots. They asked if I’d ever written a jingle and I just sort of lied and said, “Sure!” so I wrote a few and did some commercials and those got the attention of a guy in New York named Bill Backer. He was this very influential creative director at McCann who came up with “It’s the real thing” and the Coke “Hilltop” commercial. I went into his corner office with a grand piano. He was a little man in a gray suit with a bow tie — not my concept of what an adman would look like — and he starts quoting Shakespeare to me. Being fresh out of the MA program, I started quoting back. He loved it, I became his best pal and new young protégé based on that.

At what point did you switch to comedy as a career?

I did some work [in New York] for [Backer] and I was sort of hopping back and forth. Then, Second City opened a theater in Toronto. I had been socializing with some of those guys: I knew Marty Short and Eugene Levy in college. When Second City opened a company in Pasadena — I was working at McCann when I tried out and they hired me. It was $145 a week, which was a big pay cut. I went in to see the president of McCann to quit. He said, “You’re stupid, but I know you’re a young guy and you’ve got to get this out of your system.” Within a few months of me starting there, Second City lost a lot of folks — Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi and Gilda Radner — to Lorne Michaels and this new show, Saturday Night Live, so our producers said, “Let’s start our own show!”

And then you found yourself on SCTV. Was there anything from your Madison Avenue experience that you were able to bring to comedy performance or writing?

Because it was sketch, it was still that short-form stuff I was doing in advertising. And ironically, something that would become very important in the future with the Internet. The 30-second spot is the best discipline in the world to teach you what you need to say and get the hell out of there. That, to me, was a tremendous advantage in entertainment: To see how short sketches could be in order to get the joke across. A lot of entertainment writers don’t have this advantage. Their stuff will be too wordy, too flabby. I think comedy is a good connection for messaging. If people laughed, they heard it. There’s a debate about whether people actually remember the brand or just the joke [in a funny commercial]. Laughter is a visceral way to connect. Once you have their attention, it’s about what you do with it.

Now you are back in advertising, sort of, as founder, ecd of Animax, your animation studio, which creates content for brands. How has the ad business changed since you left? Was the relationship with brands the plan when you opened Animax in 2001?

Advertising was so different back then [when I started]. The power of an idea, a slogan. Visuals were becoming more important. Soon after, ads started popping up everywhere like in Blade Runner. One thing I’ve learned is this shift is going on so fast that just when you think you know where it’s going, it changes before you can formulate a plan. Advertisers really have to be nimble to deal with that. They can’t preach to or control the [consumer] mob anymore. At Animax, we’re trying to be small, low infrastructure, respond to that stuff and give the brands the benefit of our ability to create content for them in different formats for different applications. When people can tune out mainstream messages, [the question is] how can we integrate rather than be an annoyance to their entertainment? Coca-Cola always did that, I think, with those lifestyle commercials [such as] “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” I think Coke almost owned Santa — he became inescapably associated with the brand. People will remember you if your entertainment is strong enough.

What projects are you working on?

We have a show we’re doing right now for MTV, Popzilla. It fits the new model of entertainment really well because it’s a series of short, animated sketches that can be readily broken up into short-form interstitials, branded — you name it. There’s a number of ways this could be spun out from the half-hour show itself into smaller, bite-size chunks that could lead you back to the show or it could be stand-alone. 

You also did a series of Web shorts called Slotcar for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. Do brands generally come to Animax looking for you to create custom entertainment or do you develop ideas first and then look for appropriate brand partners?

There are a couple of ways we work. We can go to an ad agency that reps a client and solve a specific problem by coming up with short-form branded entertainment that speaks to their demographic group: Who do they want to talk to? What are they interested in? We can we come up with stuff for those people. The other way to do it is to just throw some stuff out there on our own that we know [will appeal to] a particular demographic base, and turn around and try to sell it to an advertiser — we don’t wait for the phone to ring. We build a fan base first. This is all part of what you have to do to stay in the game today. It isn’t good enough for a writer to come up with an idea for a TV show: You have to come up with a network, identify a need they have, come up with a great show that fits those needs and come up with a great title and a marketing approach that allows the executives to see that the show can be marketed and really do all their work for them. That really increases your chances of a sale.
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s user group was interested in Nascar, so we came up with the idea for Slotcar [a Web series that parodies the sport] presented by the brand. We bought a track and set it up in the studio. We got it across video-sharing networks — Funny or Die, YouTube, things like that, and got 2 million views. We had 4,000 friends on MySpace. That was sort of our venture into branded entertainment.

Do you see this as coming full circle from your start in advertising?

Like a trout swimming upstream to die. I will die on a slogan, on a client’s doorstep. It’s been a great ride. I can bring what I learned from entertainment and my contacts from that writing to advertising, and from my advertising experience I can bring that need to communicate concisely and effectively. I’m 60, and I got into this company near retirement age working with 25 year olds. I stay better informed than if I’m playing golf half the day. I feel like I’m still in the game.