Luck of the Drawer: A Chat With 'Marketoonist' Tom Fishburne

4/25/2018
Zach Brooke
Key Takeaways

What? "Marketoonist" Tom Fishburne obtained an MBA from Harvard, but traded the trenches of brand warfare for a life of satirizing marketing through his drawing.

So what? Fishburne's broad life experiences and career as a master marketer provide him with keen insights on how to make it in marketing.

Now what? Experiment as much as possible to find what distinguishes you from the rest of the talent pool. 

Fifteen years after hitting send on an e-mail doodle lampooning General Mills office life, Marketoonist Tom Fishburne skewers the marketing world from atop his perch as marketing’s comic prince

Tom Fishburne’s hands are in demand. As the creator of Marketoons, Fishburne’s work is a visual shorthand for the many foibles encountered in marketing and across the business world. Creative frustration, ill-fated marketing strategy and existential despair over the meaning of it all combine to provide fertile source material for Fishburne’s strips.

 

A gentle but incisive man, the head-banging logic displayed in many of his sketches reflects the frustrating experiences common to executing marketing strategies. Yet, Fishburne’s own professional life is one of unbridled success. It’s taken him from offices in the Czech Republic to the halls of Harvard University to the prestigious brand management war rooms of General Mills and Nestlé to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he runs a boutique agency alongside his wife, cranking out client commissions and corporate caricatures. A career-spanning retrospective of his funniest and most prescient panels was recently released under the title Your Ad Ignored Here

Marketing News caught up with Fishburne to talk about the lessons he’s learned over the course of a decade and a half of drawing.

Q: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A: I always thought that I wanted to be a cartoonist. That was my dream. I used to sit on the floor on Sunday mornings with the comics section and dream about my heroes, Gary Larson and Berkeley Breathed and Bill Watterson. I wanted to do what they did. Then I got a little older, and it seemed farcical and less likely. I shifted gears. I did a bit of writing for a variety of magazines after undergrad. But my career has definitely been circuitous and when I look back, all those different experiences seem to have a role in getting me to where I am. But at the time, I certainly had no idea.

Q: It sounds like you were drawn to cartooning at an early age?

A: Yes, very early. I’d take Silly Putty and I’d transfer cartoons over and change the dialogue to make fun of my brothers. That was my first introduction. Then I was drawing all the time.

Q: When did marketing show up on your professional radar?

A: I moved to the Czech Republic in 1995 and met a couple of guys who were starting the first English magazine there. Because I had a bit of a writing background and a bit of a design background, and because everyone did a little bit of everything, I worked with them, helping get this magazine off the ground. I started doing advertising, sales, then designing the ads. Marketing first lit up for me as I was making these sales calls on businesses throughout the Czech Republic, trying to convince them to run ads in our magazine. 

Q: Talk about your first gig in brand management at General Mills and what inspired you to make your first post-college cartoon.

A: I loved arriving at General Mills and realizing that there’s this whole [marketing] community. We started as a class of sorts. There were 35 or so associate marketing managers. I’d only worked in startups before then. To be in a large company was new, but to have this camaraderie of a class who are all going through [similar] experiences at the same time was a huge learning curve. I’ve often heard brand management programs described as getting a Ph.D. in marketing. It was [like that] for me. They invested a lot in training. At the same time we were learning by doing.

I found myself in this world of inside jokes where we were all e-mailing each other and talking about our experiences. It reminded me of business school. When I had a cartoon strip in business school, a lot of it was designed to capture some of these inside jokes that we shared as students. I found a similar dynamic at General Mills.

My first cartoons were parodying the things that brand managers would recognize. One was about the other side of the focus-group mirror. You’d have the people responding to questions on one side, and they’d look at the shiny glass mirror. On the other side—that world back there where everyone’s snacking on M&M’s and cracking jokes and trying to distill focus-group feedback into some insights—is actually a pretty funny world. 

 

Q: There were other places you worked before striking out on your own—Nestlé, HotelTonight and Method Products. Were your experiences the same? Are most marketing departments similar?

A: No, they’re all very different. General Mills thought of marketing as general management. You ran a brand and had control over a profit and loss as if it were a small business. Other marketing roles can be very marketing communications-focused. I liked the general management experience. When I shifted to Nestlé, it was soon after the acquisition of Dreyer’s Ice Cream, which had more entrepreneurialism and more autonomy. Method was a dramatic leap toward feeling like I was part of a startup [again]. It had only started a few years before I joined, and there were only 25 people in the whole company, and suddenly everything was possible. 

Q: What about your work is universal or rings true for most marketers?

A: Whenever I’m making fun of something, I’m usually making fun of myself and often some challenge that I’ve been grappling with as a marketer. One of the tools that I find useful—and something every marketer should do—is to step away from my desk and try to see what I do from the point of view of the audience I’m trying to reach.

Most of my cartoons try to shift the context. We can have discussions around a conference table that sound very normal when you’re in them, but if you were to put a consumer [in that position] for a moment, they would seem outlandish. A lot of my cartoons try to shift that perspective, and I think that marketers need to do that more often—step out of the ivory tower and put yourself in the position of the audience.

I learned that shift in perspective at General Mills. Former Chief Marketing Officer Mark Addicks used to encourage us to leave the office to hang around grocery stores and watch people shop for our products. They would often arrange situations where we could sit in on conference center calls and hear consumers calling in with questions.

I carried that through to Method, where I had the chance to take the brand to Europe. We had a small office, and we put the phone number of our office on the bottles [of cleaning product] themselves. Every time somebody called with a customer support query, the phone rang in our offices, and all of us were expected to talk to consumers every single day. I found that incredibly enlightening as a marketer. Now, it’s something that I try to bring through in the cartoons because if we have that perspective, we’re more likely to think about what we do in the context of what brings value to the audience that we’re serving.

Q: A lot of your work reflects roadblocks that marketers can encounter during the creative process. We think of marketers as creative, but is that the case in your view?

A: Yes, I think it is, although often marketers—particularly brand managers—are working with outside creative agencies and must balance the tension of the idea with the need to deliver business results. That creates some friction, which I find exciting as a marketer: to try to retain the creativity and uniqueness of an idea, even as you try to bring it to life. The path of least resistance is often to water down an idea and make it less exciting by removing the risk from it or making it easier to implement or run on a production line. The exciting challenge for marketers is to face each of those challenges and rather than compromise in a way that makes the idea safer, find creative solutions that ultimately make the ideas more exciting. 

Q: How do you protect creativity and bring more of it into the corporate world?

A: Marketers can shift into project manager mode, where they’re ticking the box and just trying to get it through the system. That often results in less-than-exceptional products, services and marketing campaigns. But if you take it personally and believe ultimately that our job is to create marketing that is remarkable and doesn’t compromise, then I think it’s possible.

I took away a great experience from working with Method, where we had very little budget and were competing against bigger companies, and therefore had to punch above our weight. We released things that were beautifully designed and had a compelling story because we couldn’t rely just on marketing budgets to get the word out. Sometimes marketers can get complacent and use marketing budgets as a crutch.

Q: What did your bosses think of your cartooning? Did you ever upset them or any colleagues?

A: A lot of my colleagues were convinced I would be fired for the cartoons. I used to send them out during the workday at General Mills. You’d see people’s heads pop above the cubicles like prairie dogs if a cartoon was particularly provocative. I thought at the time that if this environment was the type that wasn’t comfortable with me speaking my truth, then it probably wasn’t a great place for me to work.

I got a call from the assistant to the chief marketing officer, and a lot of my colleagues thought that was the end. When I showed up, the CMO wanted to tell me how much he liked the cartoons and was excited that I was doing it, and he encouraged me to do more. Sometimes, particularly in large corporate environments, the message we inherit is that you have to keep your head down and play it safe. What I learned from that interaction is that it was actually best to stick my neck out. I was rewarded for it by being assigned more creative positions because I made a name for myself within the company. 

At times, there’s been tension. One manager I had at Nestlé told me directly that if he ever ended up in a cartoon I would be fired. He was the minority. In that case, I waited until I moved on to a different company, and then I had all this pent-up material that I was able to use. 

Q: We’re often told to step out of our comfort zone, but when it comes time to do it, there can be a lot of pushback from colleagues or management for upsetting the apple cart.

A: Right. When I arrived as an intern at General Mills, I kept my head down. I was so concerned that I didn’t have the analytical chops. At the end of the summer, they offered me a full-time job, but as they gave me a performance review, they put creativity as a development area. I said, “Actually, I’m creative.” And the guy giving me the performance review said, “A lot of people think they're creative.” I realized that it was fair feedback because I had hidden that side of myself from the company. It was a lesson to be comfortable being who I was.

Q: What do you find funny about marketing? 

A: One thing is shiny-object syndrome. Marketers get so excited about whatever’s coming next that we get whiplash. Somebody might describe their Snapchat strategy—as if Snapchat could be a strategy—as opposed to a tactic that may or may not be of value to their brand. The strategy has to come first, but sometimes as marketers we get so excited about the shiny new thing we forget that.

 

Q: You’ve mentioned your cartooning idols. Who are some people you look up to in marketing?

A: There’s an entrepreneur in the western part of Wales whom I study very closely named David Hieatt. He has started several companies. He’s a marketer at heart and worked in advertising, but he is also an entrepreneur. He thinks about ways that brands can operate differently. He’s currently creating a denim brand called Hiut Denim in this small part of Wales that used to have manufacturing for some of the larger jean brands. When things got outsourced to Asia, all the factories closed. His mission is to try to get the town making jeans again. He’s pioneering this global micro-brand in the middle of western Wales that’s getting an incredible amount of attention despite its size. I love what that represents and what he does personally because it shows just how much we can accomplish as marketers if we have the power of a good idea and can create remarkable executions.

Q: How frequently do you draw or publish a cartoon?

ASince starting this marketing cartoon 15 years ago, I’ve held to a weekly cadence. Now that I do this full-time with a small studio the output’s a lot higher. We produce an average of 20 cartoons every week for different campaigns for different brands. I used to be able to wait for the “Eureka!” moments in the shower or on a run, and now I have to be much more structured about where the creativity comes from.

Q: You must’ve drawn thousands of cartoons at this point. How did you select the ones for your book?

A: That was a fun process to map them out. I wanted to organize the book chronologically because the past 15 years have spanned an interesting period in the history of marketing. So many things came online in the past 15 years to shape how we think about marketing. I wanted to tell the key aspects of that story. I looked at the ones that still made me laugh after all these years, and I found that some of the cartoons were too narrowly focused on food marketing, for instance, from my time at General Mills. I tried to include the ones that best captured marketing in a grand sense. 

Q: Do you have a personal favorite?

A: There was a cartoon that I drew the week that I decided to start my own business and leave a paid salary behind. That was one that’s not explicitly about marketing, but it’s one that I often hear the most feedback about, particularly from people who are thinking about making a leap themselves. I drew myself on a bicycle/flying machine with these crazy wings, and you see across the course of the cartoon, the character is going from frame to frame and saying, “What if I fail? What if it’s a crazy idea? What if I haven’t tested it enough?” At the very end, you see him launch off the cliff and he says, “What if—Oh, where did the runway go?” That was exactly how I felt when I launched the business. Feeling like I was jumping off a cliff and had to build my wings on the way down.

 

Q: What are some of the strangest places your cartoons have turned up?

A: I started to get a lot of notices from people I didn’t know soon after the Edward Snowden/WikiLeaks release asking me if I knew that my cartoons were in a top-secret NSA presentation. I followed the link and it turned out that, sure enough, some NSA presentation had used a couple of my cartoons to help make a few points.

Q: I’ve also heard your cartoons helped set a Guinness World Record. What’s the story there?

A: I created a cartoon called “The Garden of Creativity” that imagined what could happen to ideas when bringing them to life. A figure at the center is planting an apple tree, representing the new idea, surrounded by a crowd of people, but everybody else in the frame has clipping tools, hatchets and lawnmowers. It shows the challenge of trying to bring an idea to life. That it’s easier to critique an idea than to create one. Marketing Week contacted me, and I created a large version of that cartoon that attendees at a conference colored in the largest color-by-number event in the world. Over the course of two days, hundreds of people filled it in. 

 

Q: Do you miss being a marketer now that you’re a cartoonist, or do you still consider yourself a marketer?

A: I still consider myself a marketer. I don’t work in classic brand management any longer, but through Marketoons, this small studio that I’ve built with my wife, we work with a huge variety of brands on interesting marketing challenges. Now I get to think about how cartoons can tell stories for those brands. It’s absolutely marketing. 

Q: How do you feel about brands that try to be funny, whether it’s online, like the Wendy’s social media account, or classic Super Bowl commercials?

A: Humor is a great tool to leverage, but brands often struggle with it. Unfortunately, when something doesn’t work, it becomes a lesson not to do humor at all, rather than learn from the experience. One of those lessons has to do with where the butt of the joke is. In the case of my cartoons, and this applies to a lot of brands, I try to find humor in pain points, rather than making fun of either the audience or being too snarky about competition. I find it easier to find a shared laugh. It humanizes the brand by showing that they’re in on the joke. 

If you’re not careful, the number of cooks in the kitchen can easily dilute the humor and kill the joke. The reason many Super Bowl campaigns, for instance, are not that funny is that there are so many people around the table critiquing that you end up playing it safe. 

Q: What are the largest marketing changes you’ve encountered? 

A: One I try to capture in the title of my book, Your Ad Ignored Here. When I was originally trained in marketing at General Mills, a lot of the underlying assumption involved thinking about the consumers we were trying to reach as a captive audience, assuming that if you just had the right media spend, and the right message, that your audience would be captive. Much of that heralded to an earlier time when there were only a few discreet ways to get our marketing message out into the world. That’s absolutely shifted. It’s never been easier to get in front of audiences, but it’s also never been easier for them to tune out. 

So many decisions made when I started out were a tremendous leap of faith. Now we have instantaneous data to measure their effectiveness. We’re still grappling with the right way to use that data. It’s good to be data-driven, but sometimes we can become data-blinded, and we discount the importance of our own intuition.

Q: Is it easier to be a marketer now than when you started?

A: In some ways, yes. We have more tools than ever before that have leveled the playing field. You can be a challenger brand with a compelling story and make a significant impact. But in some ways, marketing has become more challenging in that we can’t be on autopilot anymore. It puts marketers in the position of continuously needing to be aware of the changes that are happening around them, not just assuming that what worked a couple of years ago will work today.

Q: Is it easier to be a consumer now?

A: I’ve been inspired by some direct-to-consumer brands that have bypassed the traditional retail model over the last few years. That creates incredible opportunity. We’re now in a world where you don’t have to settle for the lowest common denominator. I dealt with this when we were coming up with new flavors for Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream. Some of the flavors that we found most exciting we couldn’t justify launching to every state in the U.S. because it was considered too niche. Going directly to consumers frees up some of that friction.

Q: Do you have any advice for people who want to become better marketers?

A: Experiment as much as possible. There’s always value in experience outside of your day job. I learned so much from starting this cartoon. It made me a more competitive candidate whenever I shifted to a different business because I could talk about this different point of view. If you’re working in an organization like General Mills or Nestlé, you learn a tremendous amount, but you become one of many brand managers. Find some things that distinguish you from the rest of the pool.

Q: How about marketers who, like you, are looking to do something different? Any advice for them?

A: You don’t need to quit your day job right away. The founder of Method told me that he never wanted to see me leave Method to join another company. He wanted to see me leave Method to start another company. I found it useful to do something on the side while I had a day job that I loved that allowed me to ramp up the new thing to a point that it was large enough for me to actually leave. Had I left my job and immediately tried to make a business out of it, I would’ve quit out of frustration.

 


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at zbrooke@ama.org or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.

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