Creative: The Big Picture

Chicago’s Fusion Idea Lab wants to leap from the Super Bowl to the big screen.
During Super Bowl XXXIII, “Launch,” a Bud Light spot, showed a white mouse named Willie donning goggles to frighten a lovely lass into the waiting arms of Willie’s lovesick owner. A mouse seems an odd choice to pitch beer, especially at an estimated $1.6 million for 30 seconds. But then who would have linked frogs and lizards to cold ones?
The ad was created by Fusion Idea Lab–a name that smacks of West Coast swank. But the brainchild of former DDB Needham creatives Dave Merhar, 37, and Mike Oberman, 38, is ensconced in a brick building in Chicago. Former creative partners on Needham’s Anheuser-Busch business, the pair brought A-B projects to Fusion; Willie is the latest animal incarnation for Bud Light. The mouse may even become a recurring character.
“This puts us in league with the big boys,” Oberman says of Fusion’s Super Sunday entry. “It lends credibility.” Of course, credibility wasn’t a problem when the duo started Fusion in Oberman’s apartment 16 months ago. Merhar and Oberman were at the top of their game when they left Needham/ Chicago for a shop of their own.
Merhar, senior vice president and group creative director, supervised creative work for A-B; Oberman, vice president and creative director, worked on A-B and McDonald’s. With Merhar as copywriter and Oberman as art director, the team has established themselves as masters of beer-guy humor. (Credits include Bud Light’s “I love you, man” campaign.)
Their decision to leave high-paying jobs at Needham, where Oberman spent 11 years and Merhar seven, points to their entrepreneurial spirit.
“We had talked about quitting for quite a while,” Oberman admits. Being in charge of the client’s business at Needham whetted their desire to go solo, they say. “At a certain point, you’re running your own business anyway,” Merhar says of his final days at Needham.
“There’s no downside,” Merhar says of forming Fusion. “If it works, great; if not, we get jobs in advertising.”
From the start, the pair avoided the standard trappings of an ad agency, starting with the name.
“We didn’t want to be pigeonholed,” Merhar says. “[Fusion] gives us the ability to work on many projects. It’s hard for an agency with a name on the door like ‘Oberman, Merhar & Smith’ to do anything but [ad work]. We are touting the fact we are more than an ad agency.”
These days, Fusion is also more than just Merhar and Oberman. The company now employs seven staffers, including creative director Matt Brennock, who joined from J. Walter Thompson’s Chicago office, having previously worked with Merhar and Oberman at Needham.
Besides Willie, Fusion’s founders also created the “Bubble boys” campaign, tied to Bud Light’s sponsorship of the National Hockey League, in which tabletop hockey players spout clever dialogue. One yet-to-air commercial has a young man in a bar nervously spinning the game levers (which control the hockey players) as he tries to score with women. Zooming helplessly around the rink, the players become dizzy and disgusted.
Still, the shop endeavors to produce not only commercials but sitcoms, movies and marketing plans as well. To that end, Celluloid Studios in Santa Monica, Calif., acquired a partial negleownership in Fusion early on. Merhar is a director with Celluloid’s sister company, Visitor.
The setup, according to Celluloid president Olivier Katz, is an effort “to address the convergence between advertising and entertainment.”
Merhar and Oberman decline to give specifics, but they say Fusion is developing a long-format show, possibly a sitcom for a sports franchise. The agency also is working on nontraditional marketing projects from Hallmark Entertainment and Jim Henson Studios, which are teaming to launch the Odyssey Channel.
Fusion’s bigger ideas call for developing program sponsorships along the lines of the long-running Hallmark Hall of Fame. In short, Merhar and Oberman see Fusion as a shop of infinite possibilities.
“If you can write an entertaining 30-second spot, it’s not such a giant leap to write a sitcom around it,” Oberman says. “A good idea is a good idea.”
Another good idea: Fusion isn’t about to forget its advertising roots. “I’m definitely not going to hang up on anybody,” Oberman promises.