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Marketing Genius, Creative Intellectual or Maverick Philosopher? An Interview with Tom Fishburne of Marketoonist

Date published: August 17, 2018
Last updated: August 17, 2018

Given enough words, most of us can either hang or redeem ourselves quite admirably.

But rare is the ability to distill insights into a visual context.

And outline them in a single frame.

I didn't have time to write a short letter. 

So I wrote a long one instead.

- Mark Twain.

These words come to mind as we chat with Tom Fishburne, the veteran marketer and author of “Your ad ignored here”, on how he uses empathy, humor and yes, a few well chosen words to bring clarity to the increasingly complex business of marketing……

One Cartoon at a time. 

Hilarious at first glance, each of your cartoons carries within it what I can only describe as a philosophical epiphany.  Could you share how exactly you unfailingly deliver on these Eureka moments week after week, project after project?

For a cartoon to work, people have to get it right away. And look like something that I came up with in 20 seconds. But it actually involves some heavy lifting in the form of stacks and stacks of paper and a lot of false turns and playing with ideas that never quite pan out.

But there has been a bit of an evolution. When I started, I had a pretty busy day job in marketing and had to create only one cartoon a week, so the ideas could be more accidental. But now, I need to be more systematic for which I've developed a bit of a process.

Even before I know what the cartoon will be, I try and identify what I call the pain points. These are things that have bothered me or other people and are areas that I want to explore. The next stage is really about getting enough stimulus to help spark ideas.

An example that comes to mind is of the new Apple Macintosh. The latest version comes with a single port which means that I have to have a whole bag full of dongles wherever I go. To plug in my portable scanner or to use my thumb drive.

Now as a user, I find that frustrating and it's something that I wanted to explore further. I felt that sometimes businesses can be so focused on their own objectives that they can miss something very basic that can end up being a disappointment for their users.

I did research and surrounded myself with the stimulus of what other people were experiencing and saying. At that point I didn’t know what the cartoon idea would be but I started playing around with it.

I work with sheets and index cards and just create stacks and stacks of early ideas.  My process is all about simplification. It’s very iterative and I keep refining it till at some point inevitably I think….there is something here….an early part of an idea.…though still not a final cartoon.

I call them stubs like a Wikipedia stub and keep playing with them, sleep on it. And eventually….sometimes even over days….the cartoons starts to take shape.

So in the case of the Apple dongle idea….I started to imagine what an Apple store would look like if all the displays were dongles. As I played with it further I started to remember that when Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he went on a huge purge of all the different products that Apple sold.

He basically went to every product development team and said, “I'm going to draw a 2x2 matrix and only offer 4 types of products - business, consumer, portable, desktop” and that streamlined their whole portfolio approach.

I found a lot of disconnect between that methodology and the overcomplexity of the dongles that we were required to buy and then the cartoon started to take a little bit more shape.

I started to think of Steve Jobs at that white board trying to simplify the product portfolio in contrast with this overwhelming complexity of dongles….and this I found quite funny and illustrative.

I played with that back and forth and was reminded of a quote that Steve Jobs would use about simplicity in what they do and I included that in the cartoon. And at that point it was just about trying to simplify the image as much as possible till it was the simplest version of that idea.

And that is a lot of detail which I bring up because you asked about the magic and it is not the most exciting part of the cartoon process. But if I follow that process consistently then at the end of it I have something that is a cartoon that works and helps communicate what I have in mind. But I have to have faith in the process and that all those stacks of stimulus will turn into a cartoon idea.

 Do you ever produce these cartoons ahead of time in case you turn out to have a dry week or does that never happen?

I would really like to do that. I do actually have a cartoon bank for the clients that I work with. 10 cartoons that are ready to go and when the bank starts running dry, I create a whole bunch of cartoons as a batch. But for some reason my own weekly marketing cartoon operates more like a diary.

I think this is because it started out as something I was personally feeling about the world of marketing at the time. It reflects whatever issue I’m thinking about that week and while I do try and have a stockpile of things that I want to cover, I really don't work too far ahead of time on my weekly Marketoonist cartoon.

I try not to overthink why that is but for me it’s been better to do my weekly cartoons one at a time. In some way I see it as my own creative baseline which allows me to be more creative with my client projects.

I try and not have stacks of ideas ready to go because in some way it would make it feel less personal to me….I don't know why. It does create a pain sometimes especially when I am traveling but I’ve allowed myself some flexibility of missing a week here or there or in the case of today’s cartoon I ended up sending it out on a Tuesday instead of Monday because it allowed me to treat it more in the moment.

You’ve mentioned that “We’re in an awkward adolescent stage of marketing”. Could you elaborate on what exactly you mean by that and why?

I like the term adolescence because it reflects how we are moving….a couple of steps forward and then a couple of steps back.

We seem to have all these tremendously valuable tools but we are still trying to figure out the best way to use them. Ultimately we want to end up in a place where it serves our customers but in a way that also benefit the business and the brand. But there are more examples than ever of marketing that is simply infuriating.

Take for example the use of personal data. And that famous scene from the futuristic movie Minority report where the Tom Cruise character is walking through a mall and all the advertisements are scanning his retina and presenting advertisements that are perfectly personalized to who he is. Even addressing him by name.

Now I’ve been in too many marketing conferences where this scene is shown as something exciting - like we are going to be able to deliver the message to the right consumer at the right time. But I think it’s only marketers who hold that view. Consumers may see that same scene as more dystopian than utopian.

What are your views on Content Marketing? Isn't that concept actually very close to  your quote “marketing that does not feel like marketing”. 

I’ve been very ambivalent about the term Content Marketing. Like a lot of buzzwords, they can be helpful in some ways, a shorthand for a concept but they can be misunderstood or misapplied. There is also this herd effect to jump on the bandwagon and then there is a herd effect to jump off the bandwagon.

But what I like about it is that it allows companies to connect with audiences outside their regular heavy handed, hard sales tactics.

What I don't like is the checklist approach where content begins to mean that we need to create a volume of stuff to fill the need of needing to publish. The emphasis becomes so much about quantity rather than quality and ended in creating what Mark Pritchard describes as the content crap trap where  brands are feeling that they just need to publish publish publish.

I try to keep it simple and buzzwords can be a bit of a distraction. The only constant is that we create things that matter for the customers that we are trying to reach. At the end of the day for me marketing is a remarkable story that is well told….a story that not every other brand can tell…in a way that it does not feel like marketing.

And in that quote “the best marketing does not feel like marketing” I was trying to capture that as marketers we wear marketing hats and get so caught up in the hubris of what it is to be a marketer that we forget what it is like being a customer.  We need to remember to create things that we ultimately want to receive as customers .

That is something that has worked well from me and it is something that I apply to clients.…past, present and future.


Do you see content marketing as “another shiny object” or something that is more lasting in context?

I've actually used the word content marketing on my website as a shorthand to describe what I do though I made that leap long before I heard the term content marketing.

While I think we will move beyond it as a separate term, content marketing is an important part of the mindset that marketers need to be successful. That mindset can be brought alive using a lot of very different tactics but for me it means going back to the basics. Back to the core strategy of a brand and then complementing it with the relevant tools and strategies to accomplish that.

But I do believe that we need to evolve as marketers….we are using an outdated playbook and need to move away from heavy handed tactics that turn people off. We need to try and focus on solving customer pain points instead of reciting our own product features and benefits.

Tom Fishburne

Tom Fishburne

Looking at your body of work you appear to have a rare intellectual clarity….even philosophic insight that resonates at sight. Is this something other people can train themselves to do? 

I really appreciate that sentiment but at the same time, I’m reluctant to think about it in such expansive terms. I’m very cautious about my ego not coming into work.

At the end of the day I see that I have the same flaws as other marketers which is what I mine for humor. Whenever I'm making fun of something, I'm kind of making fun of myself too and I try not to think about anything beyond the pain point at hand.

And though I'm often very flattered that people see more things in my work, I don't see myself as that unique per se. I just see myself as one of many marketers sharing the same experiences as everybody and I just spend time and have developed a process to mine my own foibles for humor which I hope are relevant to others.

I am also reluctant to use the word philosopher because it adds so much weight to the experience and almost makes it untethered from being in the trenches. I like that my cartoons are practical at the end of the day and reflective of my own in the trenches work. 

The emperor often goes without clothes. Do you think it's possible to call it out? Or put forth this kind of very disruptive but ultimately valuable thinking into regular corporate speak?

I do that. The cartoons came out of the fact that I like to avoid conflict and am a bit of a people pleaser. One of the things that appealed to me was that you could use humor to draw attention to something that would be difficult to say otherwise. But I think we all have to find a way to address conflict even when it is uncomfortable and particularly when it is uncomfortable.

One early example that comes to mind is when I was at General Mills.

I had previously worked in start up environments where if something did not make sense, you just said it does not make sense and you would change the process. But in an established company like General Mills, sometimes things just existed for a long time and nobody really knew why.

One of the very hierarchical practices within GM was that you would only present 2 levels up the leadership chain. So here I was, an Associate Marketing Manager reporting to a Marketing Manager who in turn reported to a Marketing Director till whose level I was allowed to present.

Now, I remember I was working on a marketing campaign. I created and presented a whole brief to my manager who gave feedback on it and then I presented it to the director and ultimately it became time to share it with the division president.

At that point, I was told that my manager would be in the room and her boss, the director would present it to the division president. And even though I created it, not only was I not allowed to present it, I was not allowed to be in the room because they were restricting the number of people in the room.

So I told my manager that it did not make any sense to me and she told me that’s how it works around there. I really pushed back on it and was ultimately allowed to be in the room. But as I watched it, I found it very frustrating but also very comical that you would have these steps in the chain. Having the director present my slides to the president, I could see so many of the nuances that were lost.

As you go from each stage, you are further removed from the intent that went into it to start with and ultimately you added so many layers that the ideas got watered down. And  I found that very, very ineffective.

Years later, I had dinner with my marketing manager and she said that she remembered that discussion where I pointed out how ridiculous it was and she could see that.

It stuck with me that it was useful for me to point things out because sometimes companies follow practices not because they make sense but because they have always done it that way.

So it is something that I try to do but I am not always successful at it. The easiest path is really not to say anything and to just go along with it but ultimately  not good for the company when you have an organization of people that are reluctant to put up their hand and say….things should operate a bit differently.

It’s not really something that I am good at but something I do try and work at since, while it may be easier for me to not say anything, it is not the best outcome either for me or the organization where I am working.

Actually part of why I like cartooning is because it makes it easier to say those things through humor even when it is difficult to call out directly.

But have you always had this ability to observe these underlying patterns?  In your personal life? Even before and outside your career in marketing? 

Yes, I have drawn other things. But it’s funny. I didn't actually draw them as cartoons. I didn't start doing that till business school.

I loved drawing as a kid but I wasn't thinking about topics per se. I was just drawing things that were around me. It was more observational things about my life as a kid and the things that I saw whenever I would travel or take trips which was one of my favorite things to do.

In fact, it is still one of my favorite things to do….to travel somewhere I’ve never been before and draw illustrations about what I see around me.

Partly because it's fun and partly because it forces me to pay attention in a different way. I see your point about marketers being caught up in processes and the day to day busy work of marketing. I think that is very true and one of the things that cartooning has allowed me to do is to slow things down and have some deep thinking time without distractions.

Doing that in cartooning actually helps me be a better marketer. We all need to take that pause and not be consumed by the next meeting or what’s on our phone.

Everyday, I take 2 hours to just play with cartoon ideas….I start my workday at 7 in the morning since that allows me to get a block of creative time underway before I have other distractions.

It started when I was younger, when I would travel for instance, I would take time to sit at the corner and just draw sketches of what was around me and not have too many objectives about what I wanted to get out of that and just make sure that I had the time to myself.

Would it be possible for you to share any general life cartoon, as against marketing oriented ones, with us?

One of the things that I have drawn cartoons about is my life as a parent. I have drawn a number of cartoons about my life as a father and the things that I noticed in my own children’s development and taking the time to draw cartoons about that as a daily practice has allowed me to pay attention and not miss it. I feel that sometimes life can get so busy we don't take the time to pause and just observe.

For me cartooning is fortunate since it forces me to slow down. As a marketer, it gives me a vantage point when as marketers we get too excited about the shiny new thing and miss the big picture. But I believe it is something that any of us can do if we carve out that time for ourselves - the deep thinking time.

I don't see what I do as being very unique….just that I'm fortunate enough to do what I love and have the time to do the deep thinking around the daily work that I do.

But given that you like to observe, how do we see your observations on other non marketing areas?

I usually share things about marketing but that doesn't mean I don't do other things. Like physical exercise, there is one aspect of it that works like creative exercise to me. It’s almost like keeping a diary of sorts where it is less about output or creating a finished piece but more about the practice of observing which allows me to be more productive in the rest of my life.

When I start drawing, it is usually something that fulfills something for me and it is gratifying if it ends up being something that other people want to see as well. But I don't always know if that is the case and while I don't always feel comfortable sharing that publicly, I do that in smaller groups.

I have not drawn a firm line on that but I try and find the right outlets for the other type of work. For e.g. when I was sharing my parenting cartoons, there was an organization that contacted me.

This organization that was specifically for twins, triplets or even more kids at once and they had a whole self help group for parents. They contacted me to see if I could share my cartoons through their organization to their members.

That seemed very fulfilling to me even though I have only 2 daughters and one is 3 years older than the other. It was nice to know that my own private drawings about being a parent were relevant to this group.

But I guess the work that you do for clients may also be in some ways non marketing focused as they talk about their own culture / products though of course it may be scoped more tightly.

That’s true and yet it is very collaborative. They select from my RFPs and one of the reasons would be that they want me to bring my own perspective to the brief. Even advise them in case it can be made stronger.

In some cases the client work that I do is intended for their customers but in other cases I’m working on making observations about their own internal culture and intended for their own employees.

But the process that I follow is the same. It is observing their particular situation and telling stories that can help.

Tom Fishburne

Tom Fishburne

Do you have any plans of broadening or widening your target base beyond marketers and marketing in general?

It’s something that I do think about at times. I started drawing the weekly marketing cartoon when I worked at General Mills. And at that point, it was all about food marketing in consumer packaged goods but and over time, I tried to broaden that to marketing in general.

It’s a really challenging evolution because someone would say “I really liked your earlier food marketing” and now you are doing fewer things that are relevant to me.

I do like the idea of focusing that weekly cartoon more broadly on business in general and I do occasionally do that but whenever I broaden the lens too far, I hear a lot of people say “Hey, that's not too relevant to me as a marketer any more.…you’re touching on topics relating to culture and office."

I’ve tried to keep it organic and not overthink it but I like the idea of observing things beyond marketing. Yet I have a duty to the audience that has followed my work….if I broaden it too quickly then I'm letting them down by not being as relevant to the subject area where they are working.

I don't know the right answer to that and I try not to overthink it….I like the idea of broadening it but also want to stay loyal to the audience that have followed me and brought me to this point as well.

I guess the non marketing cartoons will also require a different business model than what is currently in play.

Exactly. There may be different outlets for that type of work. I would love to do a whole series of books that are partly cartoon and partly writing. Some marketing and some about business in general. Or about life or about the creative process.

There are stages of my own life journey that I would love to explore in cartoons. Those are all things that I would love to explore at some point but I have not quite figured that out yet.

I think I need something different as a creative outlet. I was actively managing a brand in the trenches and doing a marketing cartoon on the side as an outlet to make me more creative in marketing, in my day job. And now that I am drawing cartoons as my day job I still need outlets on the side where I can experiment and play with things without the constraint of thinking that I need to make it a business right away. 

About Tom Fishburne 

From drawing cartoons on the backs of Harvard Business School cases, Tom’s cartoons have grown by word of mouth to reach 100,000 business readers each week and have been featured by the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Forbes, and the New York Times.

Tom is the Founder and CEO of Marketoon Studios, a content marketing studio that helps businesses such as Unilever, O2, Kronos, Baynote, Rocketfuel, and the Wall Street Journal reach their audiences with cartoons.

Tom is also a frequent keynote speaker on innovation, marketing, and creativity, using cartoons, case studies, and marketing career to tell the story visually.

Tom draws from 20 years in the marketing and innovation trenches. Tom was a VP at Method Products, named “the 16th most innovative company in the world” by Fast Company. Over five years with Method, Tom launched new products, led marketing, and started the European business from scratch. He has led brands at Nestle and General Mills, developed web sites for interactive agency iXL, and helped launch the first English-language magazine in Prague.

Tom lives and draws near San Francisco with his wife and two daughters.

Where to find Tom Fishburne online


Twitter: @tomfishburne

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