winter / 2017

The magazine of branded content
Using cartoons to
simplify complex ideas
Juliet Stott
Interview with The Marketoonist, Tom Fishburne
Juliet Stott
Nov 2, 2017

Tom Fishburne dreamed of being a cartoonist ever since he was a boy, and for the last seven years this dream has become a full-time reality. His cartoons have appeared on a billboard in Times Square, in a Guinness World Record, and strangely in a top-secret NSA presentation released by Edward Snowden.

What started out as a hobby and a stress reliever in boring meetings, has now morphed into an acclaimed weekly cartoon published in Marketing Week. For the last 15 years Fishburne’s astute cartoons have depicted the common pain points that marketers are currently grappling with in a comedic way.

In his first book his collection of cartoons read like a time capsule of marketing since 2002. One commentator has noted that if, ‘If marketing kept a diary, this would be it’. Here Content Magazine spoke to Fishburne about how marketing has transformed in the last 15 years, whether there are any universal truths of marketing, and how marketers can use cartoons to simplify complex ideas.

Tom Fishburne Cartoon

Content: What has changed in marketing the last 15 years? What were we doing then that we are not doing now?
Tom: One of the things is reflected in the book title, Your Ad Ignored Here. When I first started working in marketing there was this fundamental assumption that we had a ‘captive audience’. We would follow a playbook, that had been used for decades, of defining our single-minded proposition, and then found ways of repeating it loudly enough to an audience we were trying to reach. There was a built-in assumption if you did that enough, it would get through to your audience. Yet, in the last 15 years I’ve found that the balance of power has really shifted. Ultimately today, although there have never been better tools to reach an audience, it’s also easier for them to tune out whatever it is you want to say to them. A related point is, because the assumption 15 years ago was that you had a captive audience, a lot of marketing operated by command and control – i.e. brands could control their own message. That has changed. Brands no longer have direct control over what is said about them. A third point that I have noticed is, you often hear in marketing that ‘half my marketing budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half’. This has also changed because of data. We now understand the impact marketing is having on sales, so marketers can no longer use that excuse.

What has stayed the same, what are the universal truths of marketing?
I have often heard marketing described as ‘a remarkable story well told’, and I think that is the universal truth that hasn’t changed. You have to have a remarkable story, which means that whatever product or service you’re trying to market in some way needs to be meaningfully unique. That’s a marketing challenge in itself, and the ‘well-told’ part is basically how you tell that story – that’s stayed the same. Whenever I approach a marketing challenge, I go back to basics, and figure out what’s meaningfully unique, then how can I tell that story in a good way. That underpins everything. What’s changed is how you tell those stories.

In your opinion, how have marketing techniques improved/evolved during this period?
It’s never been a better time in history to work in marketing. We’ve long talked about the holy grail of ‘right message, to the right audience, at the right time’, and that is something that has never been more attainable because of technology. However, marketers who get excited about the next shiny new thing, and treat it as a bolt on to just plug into whatever they are already doing, can misfire and can end up doing something superficial if they are not careful. If you have a marketing team that says ‘we need a Snapchat strategy’, they’re missing the point. Someone at Diageo rightly said, ‘It’s not about doing digital marketing, but how we market effectively in a digital world’. It’s about having the right emphasis on the right things, and applying tools and technologies in such a way that it supplements and extends your marketing, rather than putting the cart before the horse.

Which industries have adopted/improved in the last 15 years, which lag behind?
It’s less of industries, more size of company. It’s the challenger brands in any industry that are the first ones to adopt a new technology and do interesting things with it – because they have to. They can’t compete on financial terms, so they have to punch harder than their weight in other ways. Looking at it from an industry perspective I see the quickest ones to adapt are in the consumer digital space – tech companies trying to market to early adopters, then I see physical consumer product companies take some of those lessons and apply them to their space. There’s one I am watching, a physical goods company called Data Brand. They make fashion products, but they are very digitally minded. They are very often the earliest to adopt a new technology and I look to them for inspiration on how to use the solutions often first seen used by digital companies in other sectors.

You’re famous for using cartoons to simplify complex ideas. Can you give an example of how this has worked in practice?
I worked with IBM when they were launching IBM Watson. They wanted to me to illustrate the benefits of using artificial intelligence in marketing, which is a complex topic. We wanted to focus on highlighting some of the pain points marketers have when they are dealing with data. Typically, marketers have to work with an insights team that is located in a separate part of the organisation. If they have a question, they have to frame it before sending it to the insights team. They then have to wait for a period of time for the data people to crunch the numbers and create a report that they can make sense of. So, I ended up simply illustrating it as a marketer sitting in a cubical and someone coming back around the room saying, ‘hey I have the results to that question’, and then you look to the right, at the marketer, and it’s a skeleton. The viewer can get an immediate sense that the marketer has been waiting a long time for that answer.

Your cartoons are instantly recognisable as yours. How can a brand use your cartoons to deliver their message?
It varies. In some cases, the brand hiring me wants to be associated specifically with my visual style, and the audience that I reach. Typically, that brand will have a campaign with a marketing message. The cartoon that I create for them will be clearly branded as theirs, but viewers will recognise my visuals. In other situations, a brand may want a distinct visual style of their own. And for them, I work with my collaborators and other cartoonists in my studio, to come up with an idea or concept that is tailored to their needs.