Vertigo, MAD and the Power of Weird Brands

There needs to be a place for material outside the mainstream.

[Note: I wrote the below back in August but obviously never published it. In the wake of the news that Dan DiDio has seemingly been pushed out of DC Comics and that DC Collectibles is reclaiming the DC Direct name it was founded under I made a few updates and am sharing it now.]

vertigo comics logoIt’s been several months since news broke that DC Entertainment was effectively shutting down MAD Magazine, the humor and comedy magazine that has been published for decades, influencing generations of writers, artists and others. That came just a short while after the announcement another DC Entertainment imprint, Vertigo, was being jettisoned and its books and characters brought under the DC brand in various ways.

In an interview from that time, DC co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio spoke about the state of their company as well as the comics industry as a whole, addressing some of the challenges being faced and how DC is trying to meet and surmount them.

Unstated in that interview, but looming in the background of all of this, is that as part of TimeWarner DC is now owned by AT&T. That reality was on display at the recent San Diego Comic-Con, where DC no longer had a standalone booth but was folded into the WarnerMedia booth. Instead of being in the middle of the convention, DC was off in the corner. There were still plenty of promotions for the comics that form the crux of DC’s business, but the list of artists and writers doing signing was drastically reduced from years past, limited to just a few of the highest profile talent. Previously you could find all kinds of creators there who worked on all kinds of books. Much of the focus was on the off-site multimedia Batman Experience, celebrating the 80th anniversary of that character’s debut.

mad magazine logoDC’s parent company, as pointed out here, may view it more as a lifestyle brand than a comics publisher, hoping that monetizing nostalgia for the iconic characters and symbols it’s developed over the years is more lucrative than actually putting out new stories. That includes the so-far-successful line of YA books based on DC characters that have been released recently as well as other multimedia extensions.

The secondary brands that were Vertigo and MAD just didn’t have that kind of potential. Well…they do, but you have to work harder to get there.

Many projects based on Vertigo books and characters have been developed or announced over the years. But for every “iZombie,” The Kitchen or “Preacher” that makes it to the masses, there are things like Y: The Last Man that lingers and lingers in limbo.

In some cases, the inability to create bigger cultural moments out of Vertigo’s output is chalked up to the deals being complicated tangles of ownership that split control between creators and company in a way that makes development difficult. In others, it’s a testament to the lack of vision that comes from multinational corporations that are risk averse to the point of inaction.

An ambitious company could find decades of material in the list of books published by Vertigo over the years. Any title could be turned into a movie or TV show that may not turn out to be a blockbuster grossing $700 million worldwide but, with the right marketing, could be a decent hit. And if the future is indeed one where theatrical releases are only given to the biggest of the big, the DC Universe streaming outlet could house the rest, not to mention Netflix or the coming HBO Max OTT service.

Of course I have my own personal experiences with both Vertigo and MAD, having managed DC Entertainment’s social media marketing for the better part of five years, from July 2011 to December 2015.

dc directIn that time, I handled Vertigo just as I did DC’s main brand profiles. New books were promoted, announcements shared and so on. The five years I and my team went to Comic-Con, Vertigo was part of our portfolio for on-the-ground coverage. So too, DC Collectibles, the company’s product brand for high-end statues, action figures and other goods.

MAD, on the other hand, was almost completely off-limits. We were told early on that the website and social media profiles for MAD would continue to be managed by the team that was, at the time, still in New York City as opposed to Burbank, where the rest of DC Entertainment was headquartered. They had their own thing going and while we were asked from time to time to offer our thoughts and guidance, day to day we were uninvolved.

The reason was that the MAD team had a sense of their brand that couldn’t be communicated to or replicated by those outside. That’s understandable.

Shutting down the two imprints and brands makes the culture as a whole a little less weird and exciting. These were houses of experimentation, where someone with an odd idea could do their thing and try to find an audience. Many will fall short of that, standing as lone testaments to whatever it is their creators were trying to do.

Even those that did catch on would likely never achieve the kind of scale demanded by the massive companies that now control much of the cultural landscape. That’s why, as the merger was still in the works, niche streaming services like FilmStruck and others were shut down. Meanwhile DC has cut the number of titles it publishes while finding more success with its Facsimile Editions – reprints of classic books that include vintage ads and other details – than it has with many current, ongoing books.

DiDio’s frustration with that reality should prompt the question of who it is that has put him in the position of engaging in a program he disapproves of and would seemingly like to see smothered. It makes me wonder who was calling the shots on Vertigo and MAD being shuttered.

About DiDio: In the years I was working with DC I’m not sure Dan ever actually remembered who I was without someone reminding him. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel the social media work I and the team did was important, it’s just that he was a busy guy with a lot going on at all times. Once his memory was jogged he was always imminently helpful and accommodating, willing to go along with most any of our hair brained ideas. There are few people I encountered who are as passionate about comics, the characters in them, the stories being told and the fans reading them than Dan.

DC was a great company to work with all those years ago and many of the people I dealt with are still there and doing their best. Others have either left of their own volition or been shown the door during one merger-related restructuring or another. Similar situations have happened at other media companies as the tolerance for risk and experimentation among accountants concerned about private equity debt financing falls lower and lower. We need these weirdo fringe brands to keep doing their thing for countless reasons, including that they employ more people than big, streamlined operations that just want to churn out endless variations on the same 12 super hero stories we’ve already seen.

PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/30/16

pnconnect weekly reading

The latest PNConnect Weekly Reading is live:

News Feed FYI:

Helping Make Sure You Don’t Miss Stories from FriendsFacebook has further altered the terms of its deal with brand publishers: Facebook will be decreasing the reach of publishers’ posts while boosting those from family and friends. Brand managers should continue to temper expectations as to Facebook’s benefits.

Introducing Twitter Dashboard

Twitter has introduced Dashboard as a place for brand account management. Users can schedule Tweets, monitor related conversations and more. Most of these features are available through other CMS platforms, but it’s nice to see Twitter offering them as a native feature.

Source: PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/30/16: Here’s how I’m going to beat you. I’m going to outwork you. « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli

PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/23/16

pnconnect weekly reading

The latest PNConnect Weekly Reading is live:

New Ways to Tap into Video on Twitter

The expansion into longer video opens up interesting possibilities. The changes to Vine are most notable — it’s getting longer video and setting up a monetization system for creators.

Tumblr Is Getting into Live Video, But It’s Completely Different Than Facebook or Periscope

As the story notes, this isn’t actually live video natively on Tumblr, but a reasonable approximation through partnerships with other video companies. Still, this makes it official, and now just about every social network is doing *something* around live video.

Source: PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/23/16: Will Smith Also Isn’t in This « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli

PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/16/16

This week’s PNConnect Weekly Reading is live with lots of great stuff:

Voce Podcast Ep. 9: Apple’s WWDC News

In the latest episode of the Voce Nation Podcast, we talk about all – or at least much of – the news coming out of Monday’s WWDC keynote and presentation by Apple.

Snapchat Launches a Colossal Expansion of Its Advertising, Ushering in a New Era for the App

The API means that Snapchat ads will, for the first time, be sold by third parties, and will be divided by two kinds of collaborators: Ads Partners and Creative Partners.

Source: PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/16/16: You’ve Got To Love What You’re Doing « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli

Voce Podcast on Apple’s WWDC News

There’s a new episode of the Voce podcast up now:

In the latest episode of the Voce Nation Podcast, Randy Ksar and I talked about all – or at least much of – the news coming out of Monday’s WWDC keynote and presentation by Apple. You can watch the conversation below.

Source: Voce Podcast Ep. 9: Apple’s WWDC News « Voce Communications

PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/9/16

The latest PNConnect Weekly Reading is live:

Instagram Rolls Out New Algorithm-Based Timeline

Instagram confirmed that the new feed it announced in March has gone live for many users. It says the new experience is already resulting in users being more engaged with posts.

Snapchat Redesigns with Publishers and Brands in Mind

A new update to Snapchat combines Discover, the section of the app with stories from select publishers, and Live Stories, the collections your friends put together of their epic night clubbing.

Source: PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/9/16: If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize. « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli

Snapchat’s Update a Sign of Things to Come

New from me on PNConnect:

A new update to Snapchat essentially combines Discover – the section of the app with stories from select publishers who are there because of their clout and ability to sell ads against those stories – and Live Stories, the collections your friends put together of their epic night clubbing. The idea seems to be that by placing Discover next to updates from friends, those brand name stories will appear more attractive, at least to the point of giving them a try. Discover publishers also have the ability to add mini headlines and custom images to create more appeal. Finally, Snapchat is adding a “Subscribe” button to Discover that will let people opt in to receive new stories from a publisher in their Recent Updates section.

Source: Snapchat Redesigns With Publishers and Brands in Mind « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli

PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/2/16

pnconnect weekly reading

The latest PNConnect Weekly Reading roundup is live:

Every Graduate Is One in a Million—So How Can They Stand Out?

The Four Ps are: Purpose, Path, Passion and Personal Boundaries. They have been the cornerstones of my career, and I have watched countless young employees apply them.

Pew: People Use Social Media To Get News

A new study from Pew Research Center shows 62% of U.S. adults get their news from social media sites, with 18% doing so regularly.

Source: PNConnect Weekly Reading 6/2/16: Ever Since I Was Born, I Was Dope « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli

Instagram’s New Business Tools Roll Out

New from me on PNConnect:

The News: Facebook has made official what has been rumored for a few weeks now and introduced new and improved tools for businesses using the photo/video-sharing network. Business profiles will allow for better identification of a brand’s profile as well as provide contact information the audience can use to get in touch. Meanwhile “Instights” will give network managers a better look at how posts are performing as well as audience demographics and more. Finally, brands will have the ability to turn a well-performing or other post into an ad without leaving the app.

Source: Instagram Introduces Business Dashboards « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli

Voce Nation Podcast with Jeremy Kaplan

Another new episode of the Voce Nation Podcast is up:

This week we welcomed Jeremy Kaplan, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Trends to the Voce Nation Podcast. Jeremy talked about how the Digital Trends team manages content production, what he sees in the future of distributed media and much more. Watch the whole conversation below.

Source: Voce Nation Podcast Ep. 8: Special Guest Jeremy Kaplan of Digital Trends « Voce Communications