It's certainly no secret that the Twin Cities have long been considered an advertising, marketing, and branding hotbed, home to some of the most well-respected and forward-thinking agencies in the world. And while each local firm has its own origin story, one creative outpost stands head and shoulders above the rest as arguably being the most geeky: PUNY.
Granted, every agency has at least one resident fanboy or tech nerd on staff these days -- hell, maybe even an entire department of them -- but very few, if any, can boast the geek cred that serves as the very soul of PUNY. The company was founded by local comic-book giants Shad Petosky (who, along with Zander and Kevin Cannon, started the comic collective Big Time Attic) and Vincent Stall (who owns and operates King Mini International). If you've happened to catch an episode of the insanely popular kids show Yo Gabba Gabba! or found yourself blown away by the opening title sequence to the recent Rainn Wilson/Ellen Page superhero comedy Super, then you've already experienced a sampling of PUNY's contribution to the geek zeitgeist. And while most of their agency work doesn't have classic comic elements like ziptones and word balloons, both Petosky and Stall credit comics and pop culture as major inspirations to the overall direction of the PUNY brand.
[jump] "I was the oldest of four brothers, and we were super against doing the same things, but we were four nerdy boys who were into our own nerdy things," recalls Petosky. "So stuff like Dungeons & Dragons, video games -- I was the comic-book one -- every single thing that someone could possibly be into in pop culture came into my life at some point. So that's probably where this all came from. Even if I didn't have a specific nerdy interest in something, all that other stuff was coming through my house growing up."
"I just grew up in that golden era where you could ride your bike some place and get a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland, two comic books, a Slurpee, and sit somewhere. It was just always part of what I did," adds Stall. "I think when you ask a lot of creative people that question, 'How did this happen?' It's just in your DNA."
The two PUNY co-founders also grew up in a golden age of technology and interaction which, unbeknownst to them at the time, would pave the way for their future careers.
"We had a Commodore 64 growing up, so from then on I was always doing stuff with computers," says Petosky. "Then developers started to hire me to do drawings for the web back when it was brand new. So I got into HTML, and I did a lot of web development and computer stuff. I kinda just made websites and interactive projects with Vincent. I had no education of sorts. I decided to just start my own studio to sort of give myself a job."
Likewise, Stall's DIY approach to comics also played a major role in the formation of PUNY. "When I started doing comics, I never approached it from a point of view like, 'Oh, I'm gonna create this character and it's gonna be like a thousand issues.' It was more in a design sense, like 'What am I interested in? What's the packaging gonna look like? What paper am I gonna print on?'"
That said, when asked what exactly PUNY does and where they fit into the grand scheme of local agencies, Petosky and Stall are both quick to say they're no different from other boutique firms. Yet at the same time, they find it difficult to define themselves.
"To me, we're just less traditional," explains Stall. "We're just not traditional advertising. It's the same stuff, but we're coming at it from a different way. I can't say that I've honestly ever sat down and thought about our point of distinction."
"To a lot of people we're an animation studio, to a lot of people we're a design studio. A lot of people don't know what we do; some people think we're just an art gallery and we're making product," adds Petosky. "I think we just crossover into a lot of different industries and people kind of know us. We're kinda chameleon-y. You see what you want to see with us."
And although it's been that multi-headed Hydra approach to their business that has landed PUNY high-profile jobs such as Yo Gabba Gabba!, Super, and several as-yet-unannounced film and TV projects, Petosky gives ample credit his like-minded staff, teaming with comic artists, cartoonists, and other pop-culture doers.
"I hire a lot of cartoonist because they have that amazing ability to start something, finish something, package it completely, and sell it from creation to market," says Petosky. "A mini-comic person understands that, but they're also world builders, so they think about story, and they think about character, and they think about locations. They think about the wholeness of something and, I think the stuff we do always has that component in some way."
"[Vincent and I] were creating our own perfect day job, and it seems like everyone here has a lot in them," Petosky continues. "PUNY is basically a forum to try a lot of things, and I think that's why a lot of people don't quit. People get to experiment and kind of find themselves within this place."
In addition to that, Petosky finds that being based in Minneapolis also has huge advantages in terms of attracting both new talent and clients to PUNY.
"We get work from L.A. a lot, and I always hear, 'You're so much different then these boring L.A. studios that are around.' So, it's good to be from somewhere else, and Minneapolis is definitely someplace else." Petosky says with a laugh. "It's kinda easy to get work here. And the if we need help, there's four schools graduating animators -- that's amazing. There are a ton of creative people here, and tons of talent. We can draw from that, be influenced by that, and it's just great."
In speaking with Petosky and Stall, it's easy to see why PUNY has succeeded. At the same time, there's a real sense of passion behind what they do, which is the mark of a true geek. In fact, if one were to scratch just below the surface, the two probably need to pinch themselves from time to time just to make sure they're not living the ultimate geek dream.
"My mom is still like, 'When are you gonna get a real job?' and I'm like, 'Well what's your definition of a real job? I have a house and a daughter and I have two cars, the bills are all paid. It isn't just like an empty light bulb swinging back and forth!'" laughs Stall.