We couldn’t be happier that Tom Fishburne will be speaking at our inaugural Invoca Call Intelligence Summit in Santa Barbara, October 21-23. If you’re a marketer, chances are you’ve seen a cartoon by Tom — his cartoons reach 100,000 business readers each week and have been featured by the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Forbes, and the New York Times. His agency, Marketoonist, creates content marketing campaigns using the medium of cartoons.

I had a great conversation with Tom about why he creates cartoons as a living, how he gets inspired and what it means to “go viral.” But before we get to the Q&A, I’m excited to unveil the first in a series of three cartoons that Tom produced just for Invoca!

Hope this tickles your funny bone.

Q&A With Tom Fishburne, The Marketoonist

Q: You started doing cartoons before social media and content marketing became buzzwords. Why do you think cartoons are more relevant today than ever before?

A: When people think about cartoons they often think about the traditional print mediums of magazines and newspapers, which are declining in readership. But, there’s never been a better time for cartoons because they’re so immediately accessible. There’s something innate in the DNA of cartoons that makes them incredibly shareable. People in the analog world would cut out cartoons and stick them on their fridge or cubicle wall as a way to communicate an issue or a topic that might be difficult to talk about in any other way. They capture a tremendous amount of information in a small space.

Another characteristic I like about cartoons is that they’re serial in nature, meaning they publish daily or weekly and often build on each other. This happens to align well with content marketing, which shouldn’t be about creating a one-off piece and hoping it goes viral. Instead, it’s about creating an ongoing series of content and building an audience over time.

Q: Aside from being a marketer yourself, why do you like creating cartoons for the marketing audience? Why not for the general population?

A: It was serendipitous. I started drawing cartoons as a hobby, publishing them for my classmates in business school. When I went to work at General Mills I found a similar type of environment that was full of inside jokes, so I started creating cartoons and sharing them via an email sign-up list. Initially, I thought the cartoons would just be of interest to my marketing coworkers, but I started to get requests from people all over the world.

In terms of content, I was led by what people were responding to, and the marketing material really seemed to strike a chord. In retrospect, it was fortunate that I stuck to this niche because in any type of content marketing if you talk to everybody, you talk to no one. So that ended up working very well – to have such a niche, focused audience for the cartoons. And by virtue of the Internet being innately global you can reach little pockets of audiences all over the world.

Also, there happens to be a real shift in cartooning. The typical Sunday newspaper comic has to appeal to an audience from eight to 88 years old, and that ends up watering down the material.  Cartoons like The Oatmeal or xkcd aren’t trying to please everyone, so they can be funnier to a focused group of people. Focusing on marketing cartoons by coincidence ended up playing right into that trend.

Q: What’s your response when someone asks you to make something that will go viral?

A: I’ve done a lot of cartoons making fun of that request because marketers often view going viral as an attribute or a feature of a campaign rather than an outcome. We can’t control any one piece of media going viral but what we can do is follow the course of past cartoons that have gone viral, and not put all of our eggs in one basket. I’ve been creating cartoons for 15 years and I’m still often surprised by which ones really resonate, so I often advise clients to create a series of cartoons. There can be some science in terms of what cartoons will be popular, but there’s a lot of serendipity as well. I think it’s better to think about how you’ll connect with your audience over time.


Q: Despite all the advances with technology, there’s still so much to be said for a human connection. In your experience, how have cartoons served as conversation starters?

A: Cartoons naturally surface a point of view and break down some barriers because they get you laughing. And then from there you can have a conversation. It’s no surprise that editorial pages feature cartoons alongside very serious news. It gives something for people to point at and focus on while creating an opening to humanize an issue or think about something differently.

For example, I had an interesting experience when Google acquired Nest – the intelligent thermostat. I drew a cartoon that had two people talking at an office and they’re both looking at their computers..one of them is saying “I think my fire alarm is going off..Google Adwords just sent me an ad for a fire extinguisher and an ad for temporary housing.” I was making a joke about the Internet of Things, and it happened to hit at the point when everyone was really getting their heads around this concept..and the Google/Nest news had just happened. Before I knew it that cartoon had just exploded and I found it posted in a lot of amazing places — places where people don’t typically read my cartoons. It was shown on the main stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos and Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founders of the World Wide Web, shared it.


Q: You’re obviously a very creative person. How do you get inspired? What do you do when you have writer’s block, or ‘cartoon-block’?

A: When I was drawing just one cartoon a week and had a marketing day job, I could rely on the light-bulb moments. Usually something would happen during the week that I could build on. But now that I’m cartooning professionally, my output has to be so much higher. And I’ve also started a studio, working with other cartoonists, so I’ve had to get more systematic about my creative process.

What helps me is to think of inspiration less as a case of pulling ideas out of a dry well, but more like exercising a muscle. I find that that it’s useful to exercise every day. I like to focus on rituals, so I spend the first two hours of every day as my idea generating time..and I have a lot of aspects of the ritual that get me in the zone. I have a specific chair that I think in and I listen to the same album every single time.

It’s kind of like going to the gym – once I’m there, I know I have projects I need to work on and at the end of the two hours I’m done, whether it was a good or bad workout. But I find if I work out every single day over the course of a week, the ideas are there.. even if one session wasn’t as productive as another.

Many people, including myself, have the instinct of “If I’m not feeling creative, I’m not going to do it.” But I’ve found that the creativity comes if you work at it. It’s important to build time into your day to be creative, where distractions can’t take away the productivity of that creative space.

Q: At Invoca we talk a lot about attribution and ROI. How do you measure these things for a cartoon campaign?

A: When advising a client about the ROI of a cartoon campaign, I typically start with the strategic objective of that cartoon and where it sits in the marketing funnel. If the objective of the cartoon is to get people talking and create awareness, it’s top of the funnel and we look at sharing and engagement metrics. If the campaign is further down the funnel, like a series of explainer videos or lead capture via a microsite with a cartoon contest, our clients will do tracking with their marketing automation tool.

In an ideal world, we could offer a report card for every cartoon, but we often don’t have access to our clients’ data that lives in Google Analytics, social platforms etc. However, we have done some A/B testing on creative using a cartoon vs. a photo (as a visual element) in a paid social campaign, and have seen significant bumps in engagement.

Overall, it’s typically less the case of a brand wanting to prove the ROI of a single cartoon and more the case that the brand is already doing some sort of ROI analysis on their content marketing strategy and we’re a piece of that puzzle. And by the nature of cartoons we tend to perform very well relative to the other pieces.

Q: Finally, we’re excited to have you as a speaker at the first Call Intelligence Summit. What are you most looking forward to doing in Santa Barbara (aside from speaking at our conference of course!)

A: I was in Santa Barbara several weeks ago with my family and we had a great time surfing and boogie boarding in the ocean – the water is much more inviting than in the Bay Area! So, hopefully I can make a trip or two to beach while here.

Want to see more from The Marketoonist? Visit https://marketoonist.com/, and sign up for the newsletter!

Laura Schierberl

Posted by Laura Schierberl

Laura Schierberl is director of content marketing and communications at Invoca. Prior to that she held positions at Oracle, Responsys and Hill & Knowlton where she honed her skills in all things PR, content and social media. Laura earned a B.A. in Spanish and Communications at Wake Forest University. Fun facts: she loves crime TV shows and her labrador has dabbled in modeling.

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