Nothing in the marketing world is safe from Tom Fishburne. For fifteen years the Californian has been gently mocking the profession, launching The Marketoonist in 2010. Recently, he has sailed his lampooning spear of insight into topics like artificial intelligence, annoying ads and overexcitable jargon phrases (see: ‘snackable content’). Here he talks to Kate Prendergast on how he renounced then resurrected his childhood dream, and about the delight-driven power of cartoons to inspire brand love.
If you’re a marketer, it’s likely you’ve seen a Tom Fishburne cartoon recently. And if you have, it is also pretty likely that you snickered. Better known to his tribe of followers as The Marketoonist, hundreds of Fishburne’s distinctive visual parodies have been circulated over work email (typical subject line: “LOL, so you”), exploded on social media, and appeared as printouts above the workstations of employees worldwide. Brands big and small have caught on to the power of parody too, with Fishbourne carving out his own content marketing niche to partner with the likes of Google, IBM, Unilever and the New York Times.
On the launch of his new book, Your Ad Ignored Here, Fishburne talks how he got to satirising the marketing industry for a living – from his student press origins, to his love of French cartoonist Sempé, to the conundrum of localising humour-based content, to working with clients. He also looks back to his days at General Mills, when his alter ego was taking shape, and when his colleagues all thought his mischief-making would actually get him fired.
Mahlab When did you first begin as a cartoonist? And at what point did you realise you could start doing it as a profit-making business venture?
Tom Fishburne I fell in love with cartoons as a kid and I dreamed about becoming a cartoonist. But there came to a point when I got older that I didn’t think it was a realistic dream. So I put it to the side. I came back to it in a weird place though, Harvard Business School, where I’d put a cartoon in the student newspaper once a week, just as a hobby to capture some of the funny things I saw around me in student life.
Doing this made me fall in love with cartoons all over again. After I’d finished Business School, I wanted a way to keep going with it – but I didn’t have a student newspaper. So I just started emailing cartoons to my colleagues with a signup feature included. It was still in the vein of a hobby for a long time – my own private diary of things I was observing in the world of marketing – but my audience started to grow. To my surprise, I started to get signups from all over the world.
Then I got an email from the Asian Wall Street Journal, asking if I would collaborate with them and create a cartoon book. They realised people were subscribing to their paper without even making it passed the front page, and they liked the idea of cartoons as a way to tell a deeper story. They thought a good way to go about this was to tuck the book inside the paper itself.
It was at that moment I started thinking “Maybe there’s more to this cartooning thing”. So much of my day job had to do with trying to drive engagement with consumers, and I realised that cartoons themselves were an engaging kind of media. A lightbulb went off.
M What is it about the marketing world that makes it so fun to poke a satirical stick at?
TF I love marketing, and I love working in marketing. When I’m drawing cartoons, I’m really making fun of myself, if anything. I’m trying to process and figure out the changing world around me. Nobody has all the answers, but marketers are particularly prone to acting like they do – there are constantly people proselytising one new trend or another, but we’re all still trying to work it out. I think collectively laughing at ourselves is a really good way to do that.
When I started drawing I didn’t know if I could keep it going over the long term. But if anything, the amount of things to make fun of has only accelerated. There’s never a shortage of material.
M What is it about cartoons that can make them work so well as a content marketing initiative?
TF There are a couple of characteristics. The first is that they’re a simple, visual form of media. I think visual media works very well in a cluttered world, and cartoons even more so because they’re participatory. When you’re looking at one, there are words and pictures, and as a reader you have to put the two together in your mind to make the joke. It’s often the case too that the reader sees themselves in the cartoon in the situation that’s represented there.
Another big thing is that oftentimes cartoons are a serial medium. They’re not designed to be a ‘one hit’. I think there’s value in having an ongoing cadence with the audience over time, rather than doing one thing and hoping it goes viral. My own longest campaign with a client has been with the Weekly Cartoon, which has been going for seven years now, and that has created this amazing connection with its audience where they’re always looking forward to the next instalment. You can think of how Charles Schulz ran Peanuts every day for 50 years – it’s this drip feeding of storytelling over time that I think is really powerful.
My clients regularly run analytics on cartoon campaigns versus other types of visual media and often, they see triple the engagement rate.
M Are there any other figures from the cartooning or art world that you admire or draw inspiration from?
TF So many! I’m always looking out for cartoonists in all different kinds of medium and particularly cartoonists in different countries. My favourite cartoonist of all time is a French cartoonist called Jean-Jacques Sempé. He’s a legend in France and though he’s not so well known in other countries, he’s drawn a number of New Yorker covers. What I love about his art is that he’s often able to tell a cartoon story without even requiring a caption – having a visual that in and of itself is so funny, it makes you laugh. That level of simplicity in a drawing is the highest form of cartooning in my opinion; to get to a place where you can simplify an idea down to an essence. Sempé is the genius of that.
M Did you expect your cartoons to be as well-received as they are by industry audiences? In other words, did you think us ‘business professionals’ would be this ready to have a laugh at ourselves?
TF Not at all! My ambition at first was just to make my colleagues laugh at the company where I worked, General Mills. Then I thought maybe the people would be relevant to those working in food marketing. Eventually, it started to dawn that there is a lot that is similar in the world of marketing, whether you’re doing a B2B campaign for a software company or working in a small consumer brand.
When I first started doing the cartoons in fact, a lot of my colleagues were convinced that I would be fired – for rocking the boat or being too critical. But I felt intuitively that we needed to laugh at ourselves, and that was validated early on when I got summonsed to meet with the Chief Marketing Officer at General Mills. My colleagues thought it was to get my marching orders to leave, but what he told me was that he was excited I was cartooning and encouraged me to do more.
In large companies, we can be so risk-averse to putting our neck out there. But had I played it safe, I would’ve just been one of a hundred marketers in the organisation. The more I moved in the direction of cartooning and making the fun of the industry I worked in, the more successful I became at my day job, too. Some of the jobs I moved into before leaving to do cartooning full-time came as a result of my cartoons. It’s funny how that all came full circle.
M Are there any cultural nuances you have to take into consideration when cartooning for different international markets?
TF I think about this regularly and I’m sure I get it wrong. I’ve lived in multiple markets internationally and I’ve had the experience of trying to bring an American brand to the UK and being astounded by all the things I thought would translate but didn’t – even though it was technically in the same language.
I’m transparent about the fact I am an American though, and there’s always going to be that American point of view. So while I try not to use examples that I think will be deliberately and only American, by the same token I don’t want to hide the fact I’m American. The good thing is that English is something of an international business language, so my cartoons generally work across markets to some degree. That’s a rule of thumb I follow with my weekly cartoon.
With my client cartoons I’m more specific. I realise their audiences are often based in another region so we think much more concretely about how they’ll translate. Sometimes we’ll literally translate them into different languages. I did something recently with LinkedIn for example, where we translated cartoons into a dozen languages and really thought hard about how they’d be received.
One of the nice things about having cartoons as a serial medium is that I don’t have to get it right over time. Over the long arc of the series, if sometimes some of the reference points aren’t known or understood, that’s okay. It’s never perfect.
I’ve experienced this cross-cultural translation live as well when I spoke at an event in Istanbul. They had a live translator for the audience, who were all wearing headsets, and I’d get to the punchline and there’d be silence. Or they’d wait 10 seconds for the translation to come in and they’d laugh. Sometimes I’d say something that wasn’t even funny and they’d laugh. I think as long as I stay human to what my experience is around the cartoon, that’s the north star where I should aim.
M What is the most enjoyable campaign you’ve worked on recently?
TF I worked on an internal content campaign recently with the French company Schneider Electric, where the cartoons were translated into a dozen languages for all their employees across different markets. The 30 cartoons I created became thought-starters that managers could use to walk employees through the culture change, and I found it really inspiring that cartoons could be used in that way.
It was a lot of fun too. I’ve done campaigns in the past for internal audiences but this one was really systematic. Schneider have a thousand employees around the world and making any culture change with that number of people is a real challenge.
I feel as well that internal marketing is often overlooked. When you’re an employee, you get a ton of communication and much of it doesn’t have as much thought put into its presentation as the content for external marketing. And yet it’s so important. If you can apply a bit of creativity, it can have enormous impact on the business.
M As you’ve witnessed them and depicted them throughout your career, what are the biggest changes that the culture of marketing has undergone?
TF I think there are so many exciting things that have happened in the world of technology. Especially in the last 15 years, I feel there have been dramatic changes. But one change worth noting here is more to do with the mindset of marketers. We still think we’re in the Mad Men era of marketing and that we’re playing to a captive audience. But there’s no such thing as a captive audience now.
The content we put out today has to be fundamentally engaging and worth sharing from the start, or it really doesn’t matter what technology or tools or platforms you use to get your message in front of them. I think that mindset is something that marketers are really struggling with. We have to recognise the balance of power has shifted in terms of who controls the communication – it’s gone from the brands to the audiences themselves. While it’s never been easier to reach people, it’s also never been easier for them to tune us out.
M Final question: what have you found most absurd in the marketing world recently?
TF I love seeing how marketers think about artificial intelligence. I feel like it’s compelling and exciting and we’re starting to see its live application already. But marketers often fall prey to that ‘shiny object syndrome’ – we jump at tactics that aren’t quite ready for prime time. We saw marketers leap on the chatbot bandwagon for example, only for it to be announced that over 50% of chatbot experiences were failures and required human involvement to continue the conversation.
We’re in that awkward, adolescent stage of digital marketing, and that’s what I’m finding most funny right now. I’ve done a few cartoons around chatbots recently, and I’m sure there’ll be more to do with AI – and a lot more besides.
Tom Fishburne’s new book, Your Ad Ignored Here, can be found here. Mahlab took no chances – we pre-ordered a copy.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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