Can MAD-vertising work in this sombre era?

Saul Colt wants to bring back some of the humour and fun to advertising, and he’s enlisted the usual gang of idiots to help him accomplish his goal.

That description was long used by the influential comic book MAD Magazine to describe its writers, illustrators and editors, several of whom have become part of a new in-house creative team of Colt’s Toronto word-of-mouth/experiential marketing agency, The Idea Integration Co.

There’s been a real lack humour and fun in advertising in recent years, said Colt. “In a Super Bowl ad a few years ago, a kid drowned in a bathtub; nobody wants to see a kid die in a bathtub,” he says, a reference to insurance brand Nationwide’s infamous 2015 ad “Make Safe Happen”—which featured a young boy reciting off all the key moments in life he’d never experience because he died prematurely.

“I truly believe that’s not what consumers want,” he says. “They still want to have a laugh, and have an inside joke. That’s why memes are so popular.” And, he says, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the brands capable of making people laugh are the ones that stand the test of time.

The new 20-person team at the agency includes several figures who worked with MAD Magazine, including writer Dick DeBartolo (the man once known as “MAD‘s maddest writer,” and a one-time question writer for Match Game); illustrator Tom Richmond; Vancouver-based writer Ian Boothby; and cartoonist Theresa Burns Parkhurst. The team is being headed by Bill Morrison, who has a long list of comedy and pop-culture credentials to his credit.

Morrison was not only MAD‘s one-time editor-in-chief, but also co-founded Bongo Comics alongside The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Steve and Cindy Vance. He also illustrated a graphic novel adaptation of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and worked on episodes of Futurama and The Simpsons Movie. (The tool-belt that Homer is wearing in this scene is his handiwork—a throwback of sorts to Morrison’s early career as a technical illustrator.) Oh, and he also had a hand in the creation of Spider Pig.

“Bill has a rolodex [containing] just about every illustrator, animator, funny person in North America,” says Colt. “Once we get the brief, he’s going to put together dream teams for every assignment.”

Morrison and Colt’s relationship dates back to the early 1990s in Los Angeles. A comic book fan all his life, Colt was self-publishing his own comic books—often parodies of superhero titles that riffed on what the big publishers were doing with their iconic characters. “If Marvel and D.C. would kill their characters and they’d come back in 50 issues, I’d have my character die and come back in four pages,” says Colt.

Morrison had already attained a degree of success in the industry when Colt approached him about illustrating a cover for one of his titles. His willingness to help was emblematic of the ego-free nature of the comics business as a whole, says Colt.

“If you’d met Ben Affleck on the street and asked him for advice or to have a meal, he probably wouldn’t give you the time of day,” he says. “But not a single legend in comics ever said no to me. I was a nobody… but it was such a warm and wonderful community.” Hell, Colt even had dinner with legends like Stan Lee and Frank Miller.

“We didn’t work together a whole lot, but we got to be casual friends, and saw each other occasionally,” says Morrison from his home in St. Clair Shores, just outside of Detroit.

Then, during an all-too-brief respite from the pandemic last October, Morrison came to Toronto for Fan Expo Canada, and Colt invited him over for a home-cooked dinner. On the drive to Colt’s home, Morrison said he had something to discuss with his old friend.

Since leaving MAD, he had been toying with the idea of starting a boutique ad agency specializing solely in humour. He would recruit some of his former colleagues, all of them highly regarded writers and illustrators.

“I thought that if people wanted to sell their ideas and products using humour, who better to go to than people who’ve been doing the best humour in the world all their lives,” says Morrison. “I love just getting together with other creative types and solving a problem, and that’s pretty much what advertising is—taking a product or idea and trying to present it in a way that’s creative and entertaining.”

His inspiration was Johnstone and Cushing, a U.S. agency that specialized in comic strip-style advertising from the 1930s until 1962. “Back in those days it was very common to open up a magazine and see a page that looked like a comic strip, but it was an advertisement,” says Morrison. While his idea called for a more contemporary approach, the idea is to engage consumers through a combination of funny scripts and visuals.

“Whenever we’re in trying times like we are now, humour has always risen to the top,” he says. “It’s just what people need.”

While he still loved being a cartoonist and comic artist, page rates for artists these days are “really lousy,” he says. “Advertising pays much better, so sometimes it’s just more cost-effective to put your skills in that direction.”

When Morrison suggested his idea, Colt was immediately intrigued. The Idea Integration Co. has been around since 2008, but the pandemic convinced Colt he needed to shake things up if his small independent agency was going to survive another 10 years.

“I’ve been in love with MAD Magazine my entire life, and [late founder] Bill Gaines is one of my business heroes,” says Colt. “I’ve read every biography of Bill, every book on MAD Magazine the company.” That includes Good Days and Mad, a memoir by new team member DeBartolo. “It’s my favourite business book of all time,” says Colt.

But Colt stresses that this is not about resurrecting MAD, meaning clients shouldn’t expect fold-ins and movie parodies—although a comic strip announcing the new partnership (some panels of which are included) has multiple references to TV shows and movies such Heat, The Sopranos and Pulp Fiction.

“Our goal is not to get people to match our level of risk; the goal is to find a level of risk [that’s suitable] for the client, and get them to take a half-a-dozen baby steps past that,” says Colt.

And brands can use some guidance when it comes to doing funny right, he says, pointing to Pabst’s Blue Ribbon’s poorly received tweet about Dry January last month. “These are professionals, not the funny kid in the back of the class who’s going to do an ass-eating tweet because he thinks it’s super shocking and edgy,” he says. “My level of risk is huuuge, and I looked at that and thought ‘Somebody’s going to get fired for this.'”

Colt has already secured eight meetings, six of them with what he calls “tier one” brands. “Things are happening,” he says. “Like everything, we need that first big project to show what we can do, and then the dominoes will start falling.” Their plan is for some of the comedy team / ad creatives to meet with prospective clients to determine their level of risk and where they draw the line.

“Sometimes it’s not about what the brand thinks it can get away with, it’s what their customers will let them get away with,” says Colt. It could just be a simple digital campaign or it could be “the craziest television show you’ve ever seen.”

Colt adroitly sidesteps questions about the cost of bringing on a well-known team, but says he’s absolutely confident this very different MAD-men model will work. There is a runway of at least one year to get this new venture off the ground, and says there are literally thousands of companies that should be leaping at the opportunity to work with Morrison and his team, he says.

“The only way this fails is if there’s a cover-your-ass mentality [among] management where they say ‘There’s no reason for me to take a risk because it might blow up in my face.’ That’s literally the only way this doesn’t work.”

“I’m going all-in on this,” he says. “I’m super-committed to figuring it out.”

What, him worry?

Chris Powell