Editor’s Note: Tom Fishburne calls himself a “marketoonist”—he creates cartoons that help businesses communicate. He has over 15 years experience as a marketer and is a popular speaker and gifted writer. Tom says that cartoons ” have a superhuman ability to break through the clutter.” I had the opportunity to talk to this extraordinary talent about his big gamble on full-time cartooning, the importance of customer service, and the awesome power of storytelling.
ABS: I’d like to start by saying that you appear to have an embarrassment of talents—writing, speaking, experience in business, and artist —a bit unfair, I’d say!
TF: (laughs) It was kind of serendipitous. I loved to draw and write as a kid, but I gave it up and became practical and went to business school. As a hobby, I took up drawing again for the student paper, almost as a stress reliever. I drew about the business world that surrounded me, and more and more people paid attention.
ABS: How’s it going?
TF: We’re up to 100,000 readers a week now , mostly people who work in marketing. Early on, there was interest from businesses to create cartoons to go with their marketing efforts. After some trial and error, I figured out a business model that creates cartoon-based marketing campaigns. So, in November of 2010 I started Marketoonist and went into cartooning full time. I supplement that with speaking and writing.
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ABS: For you, business and cartooning go hand in hand. It’s not a path that is obvious to the rest of us at first glance.
TF: Business is often so dry and there are many messages that can benefit from humor. Business doesn’t have to be so serious. We can get out of that “business voice.” Social media is helping us get to a place with human relationships where businesses shouldn’t be so distant. A cartoon is a universal language—a nice way to communicate. I’ve discovered over time that cartoons bring us together in laughter, not just in criticism or irony, but also to point at positive examples. Words sound critical, but with art we can laugh at ourselves.
ABS: I just saw one of your cartoons recently—it focused on customer service at an airline.
TF: Customer service is amazingly overlooked, often thought of as a cost center aiming to reduce the interactions with customers. Companies that do customer service well, like Zappos, stand out. I have been a customer when customer service is terrible—United Airlines, for instance. When something goes wrong, they drop the ball on customer service. I sketched this cartoon while on hold with United—I had four phone calls totaling 132 minutes with them while trying to get home from New York after a storm, so I had a lot of time to think about service.
ABS: And positive lessons?
TF: One of my favorites is Innocent Drinks, a smoothie company in the UK. They had no marketing budget, no ad budget, but instead invested in amazing customer service interactions. They have a consumer phone, named the Banana Phone, that would ring for customer issues, and everybody in the office shared in answering the calls. So what happened is that the employees began to fight over the privilege of providing customer service. A job usually relegated to an impersonal cost center, here was Innocent the smoothie company doing it a different way. This activity makes a huge impact. It’s real people dealing with real people, and the company that understands the power of this is going to understand their customer best.
ABS: At Assistly we advocate Whole Company Support—we think everybody has a role to play in customer service.
TF: Assistly’s approach makes so much sense. Customer service should be driven by the philosophy that everybody is in marketing no matter their job. Too many businesses—particularly larger enterprises—think of it as just external veneer. Every interaction with the consumer is a form of marketing, and my cartoons are driven by that philosophy.
ABS: “Everybody is in marketing”— that’s something else we preach at Assistly.
TF: That’s refreshing. Customer Service is one of those areas that is so consistently badly done. And it’s mystifying because it’s so expensive—the benefits of paid media can quickly evaporate with bad service. This happens because businesses look at marketing as being in one silo and customer service in another. This is misguided. If companies had a more holistic approach to marketing, they’d have a better shot at standing for something—at setting themselves apart in a competitive environment.
ABS: Maybe advertising will go the way of the horse-drawn buggy?
TF: Well, as the founder of Geek Squad says, “Advertising is a tax for unremarkable thinking.”
Any business should consider all interactions as marketing. Every bad experience can be amplified in public, every good experience, too. This should create even more of an emphasis on service.
ABS: Give us a look at the special challenges of cartooning for business.
TF: Businesses often focus on short-term campaigns to appeal to the mass market. Yet this approach can result in a lowest common denominator message without continuity that is not that good at breaking through the clutter. With my cartoon campaigns, I try to encourage clients to focus on a narrower target. It’s better to be meaningful to a few, than blandly appealing to many. I also try to encourage them to focus on long-term conversations with customers, rather than short-term campaigns. One of my clients has been publishing a weekly cartoon now for over three years.
ABS: So does this lead you to specific industries or markets?
TF: Yes, the nice thing about social media is that you can reach niche audiences better. A small group has a network; the members share with each other regularly. This can let you get an important message to a smaller group.
TF: I was at a cartoonist meeting and got to meet my childhood hero Berkeley Breathed and it struck me how much traditional cartooning is struggling. In the early days of Hearst newspaper cartooning, the comics were used as loyalty engines. You bought the paper that had your favorite cartoonist. I believe there’s a similar opportunity today, because brands and businesses recognize the power of storytelling.
There is a role for a cartoon because it’s so accessible, easy to share, and breaks through the clutter—and the serial nature of it means it can be a frequent, regular thing. It can be a main form of marketing, thought of as content, rather than ads.
ABS: Please give an example of what you mean.
TF: One of my clients is Case Central, where lawyers and IT people meet and engage. Now, you wouldn’t necessarily expect engagement there, but because it’s an interesting juxtaposition of worlds—one where IT guys and lawyers have to work together and talk to each other—a lot of rich material can surface. Inherently, it’s very niche, but if you work in that world, it’s funny. And cartoons get spread rampantly.
ABS: So it’s a whole new game for cartoonists now?
TF: You know, there are very few people making a living cartooning —my heroes as a kid were Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, and Gary Larson. But the state of traditional newspaper cartooning in the 90’s forced all three to quit. Today, it’s even more difficult for cartoonists. Most have day jobs by necessity.
But I believe there’s actually more of an opportunity in some ways because storytelling has never been more important. I like to think there is an opportunity for a kind of cartoon Renaissance.