Tom talks to TheNextGag about where he found his inspiration, how he got his start, how advertisers use its creations, what’s next for his brand content agency and why adults should keep drawing.
Tom Fisburne is the Founder & CEO of Marketoonist in the USA.
You’ve probably stumbled upon one of Tom’s cartoons that make the rounds online every Monday, with the use of sharp humour to describe what’s wrong in the marketing world in an unique and distinct visual style.
THENEXTGAG: A LOT OF THE BRANDS THAT YOU WORK WITH ARE IN TECH, I GUESS BEING BASED IN SAN FRANCISCO HELPS A LOT ?
TOM FISHBURNE: Yeah. It does. Although I have to say right now, most of the projects I am working on are with clients based in Europe and in the UK. So, I have a lot of early morning calls.
TNG: I BELIEVE IT TAKES A LOT OF EFFORT TO BOIL DOWN A COMPLICATED ISSUE IN ONLY ONE PICTURE ?
TB: That’s definitely the trick. It’s an act of reducing an idea to its bare essence. It’s deceptively simple.
TNG: SOMETIMES I SEE AN ISSUE ON MARKETING BLOGS OR IN THE TRADE PRESS AND I IMAGINE HOW MARKETOONIST WOULD TACKLE IT.
TB: That’s great. I get a lot of funny emails from people who send me things that are happening in their own companies and think they would turn into good cartoons.
TNG: ARE YOU DOING THIS FULL TIME ?
TB: Yes, full time. For about five years now.
TNG: IS TALLIE FISHBURNE RELATED TO YOU ?
TB: Tallie is my wife. She works with me. We started Marketoonist as a business together five years ago, although she obviously supported it for much longer before that. And it’s great to work with her. It is really a family business. Sometimes even my children come out in the studio and draw with me too.
TNG: HOW DID YOU ORIGINALLY GET STARTED ?
TB: I fell in love with cartoons at a very young age. I used to take silly putty and press it onto cartoon newspaper print and then transfer cartoons to a clean sheet of paper and change the words around. I used to make cartoons making fun of my brothers.
And then I did what kids do when they get older, I just stopped drawing. And I didn’t really rediscover cartooning again until an unlikely place — Harvard Business School. I was roped in sending in a few cartoons into the school paper from a friend of mine who was the editor and I fell back in love with cartoons. And I thought there has to be a way to make cartooning a part of my life. When I graduated from Harvard Business School, I didn’t have a school newspaper anymore, so I started just sending them out as an email newsletter once a week, while I was working my day job at General Mills as an associate marketing manager. That was in 2002. Pretty quickly, the cartoons started to take off and I started to build an audience. And the cartoons are now read by over a hundred thousand marketers every week.
Over time, I added social media and a blog and just kept expanding trying to reach more people with the cartoons.
A few years into it, I started to think about a potential business model. This was accelerated by a phone call I got from somebody working at the Wall Street Journal who asked if I could create a comic book for the Asian Wall Street Journal. And I realized that was a really interesting use of cartoons as a form of marketing. And for a brand like the Wall Street Journal to want to work with me when they could work with any cartoonist around, I thought maybe there is a nice niche that I have this marketing background as well as a cartoonist background, and the strength in my story might be the fact that I have these two things together.
And then I started moonlighting and playing with different business models while I held day jobs at General Mills, Nestlé and Method. Nights and weekends I would spend drawing cartoons and thinking about to turn cartooning into a business. And finally five years ago, I took the leap and launched a full time content marketing agency that specializes in this unique medium of cartoons.
It has been growing and expanding. We now work with a number of cartoonists from various places including The New Yorker that we collaborate with that have different visual styles. It’s been a fun exploration to see how cartoons could be used as a communications medium in the world of advertising and marketing.
TNG: DO YOU WRITE ALL OF THE CARTOONS YOURSELF ?
TB: With my weekly Marketoonist cartoon, I write and draw the cartoons completely myself.
With client campaigns, it’s evolved into more of a team where I have been able to pull in different cartoonists who are incredibly talented as cartoonists, but many of them don’t have any marketing or advertising backgrounds. So, in those cases, I act a bit more as an editor or creative director and it’s more of a collaborative creativity model. With certain cartoonists, I work on the idea and inception stages of the campaign, and with other cartoonists who have different visual styles, we really bring the cartoons to life.
It has involved a lot of experimentation to find the right model that works. But my ultimate goal is that I would love to build an agency that can get a lot of these amazing cartoonists work for what they are extremely talented at doing.
TNG: CONGRATS ON THE CAMPAIGN THAT YOU DID FOR ERIC SCHMIDT’S NEW BOOK.
TB: Thank you so much. That was a really fun campaign. We’ve worked on a few campaigns now with Google. And they are great. The one with Eric Schmidt was fun, because he was publishing those for his own personal book launch. He wrote a book with his former head of product, Jonathan Rosenberg. And the cartoons each illustrated different leaping off points that they wanted to tease from the book. It was fun to see how far they would travel.
TNG: I SEE THAT YOU NOW ALSO DIP INTO ANIMATION NOW ?
TB: Yes. I am excited to expand even more into that. We actually created an animation for one of the Google projects. We turned one of the cartoons into a fifteen second animation that Google used as pre-roll advertising as part of a YouTube campaign to let people know about the book. That was exciting to see them use it on YouTube.
TNG: CAN YOU TALK TO US ABOUT THE STORYTELLING WORKSHOPS THAT YOU DO ?
TB: I never expected that speaking would be a part of what I do. But I started to get invited to do public speaking pretty early-on. It was part of my job at Method. And you speak at one place and somebody sees your talk and invites you to another. And over time I started to add a visual storytelling component to it, where I teach everybody in the room how to draw. We use drawing as a metaphor for creativity and doodling as a metaphor for prototyping. It’s a powerful exercise because a lot of adults haven’t drawn in the recent past. If you can get them to break out of their comfort zone, that’s a great way to unlock their creativity.
TNG: WHAT DO CLIENTS DO WITH THE CARTOONS THAT YOU PRODUCE FOR THEM ?
TB: It’s becoming a core part of their content marketing strategy. So many brands are suddenly seeing themselves as publishers of sorts. So they want to put out good content for their audiences. They struggle with having quality consistent content to share. Cartoons are a great form of content marketing.
They may do a number of things in content marketing to reach an audience. Cartoons fit right into that ecosystem because they are visual and they have continuity built right into them. There’s a serial nature to in cartoons, where cartoons are normally published not just as a one-off, but one every week for a period of time, or one every day for a period day of time. People want to look out for the next cartoon installment. Our longest running campaign is actually over five years with a weekly campaign. Every single week for five years, this company, Kronos, which make workforce management software, has published a cartoon. And it’s been a great way for them to talk about their products without just telling their features and benefits. They can use the cartoons to humanize their brand and to provide content that their audience and people who buy the software really find funny on its own right.
TNG: WHEN YOU DO THESE TYPES OF CAMPAIGNS, ARE YOU STILL THE ONE WRITING THE COPY ?
TB: As we’ve grown with the studio, I am heavily involved in every single campaigns, but for some projects that are more team-based, I will tee up exactly the potential leaping off point for the cartoons and then I work with really talented cartoonists to help create ideas around those themes. We operate a little bit like a TV writing room, where there are creative cartoonists pitching funny ideas based on these leaping off points for cartoons.
TNG: WHAT WOULD BE THE NEXT STEPS FOR YOUR AGENCY ?
TB: Our initial focus for most of our campaigns were in the space of B2B marketing. Largely because my own background is as a marketing person myself. My natural cartoon style is to write cartoons that other business people find funny. But as we grow and we add more to the team, I would love to expand more into consumer marketing projects. I’ve done a few so far, but I’d love to start doing more. I can see the potential for more consumer brands having some types of daily marketing cartoon.
And in fact, this goes back to the campaigns that we saw in the 1950s and 1960s, where the cartoon medium was much more popular. A lot of brands would use cartoons to tell their brand stories. I would love to see a new renaissance in cartoons as this type of marketing vehicle given that content marketing is on the rise and brands are becoming publishers. There is a great fit for cartoons to be part of that publishing trend.
TNG: YOU’VE SAID THAT “THE BEST MARKETING DOESN’T FEEL LIKE MARKETING”. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT ?
TB: That is something that came out of my speaking. As I gave talks in various places, I was trying to communicate something about this shift that I have been seeing in marketing. Everything has changed with the technology that is available, but a lot of the mindset behind marketing is still stuck in the Don Draper/Mad Men era. And I feel like we are all marketers but we are also consumers. And as consumers we can easily tell when we are being marketed to. And it can often feel very annoying and disruptive and simply add to the clutter. And I often find that in trying to break through the clutter, marketers often deploy techniques that only add to the clutter. And sometimes we forget as marketers that consumers aren’t thinking about our brands all the time and that sometimes the best approach is to reach them in a way that doesn’t feel like a heavy-handed marketing tactic.
I first used this quote when I was giving a talk and sharing a case study of Beats by Dr. Dre during the London Olympics. There was an unprecedented crackdown from the International Olympics Committee to make sure that nobody ambushed the marketing in London. They even passed a law in Parliament prohibiting people from associating with the Olympics brand. There was even one baker who was making Olympics rings out of buns on his windows and was told to take that down.
Beats by Dr. Dre created a line of headphones in the national colours and then found ways to give those headphones to some of the Olympic. And suddenly all of the athletes were wearing them on screen. And even though Beats by Dr. Dre wasn’t the official Olympic sponsor, you could not miss them at the Olympics. Because of how they’ve just been really smart about having something that fits so well with the Olympics that the athletes wanted to be a part of. Samsung was the official sponsor, but all you saw from them was the official ads associated with the event. Everyone noticed Beats by Dr. Dre.
When people complained about it, the IOC basically said “This didn’t seem like marketing to us”. And it just struck me that this marketing was powerful primarily because it didn’t feel like marketing. And I think it’s a good metaphor for any marketer to think of what we do as marketers if we do things that don’t feel like marketing. That are just useful, genuinely in their own right.
Founder & CEO
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