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.