So what exactly is a marketoonist?

Marketoonist is a business I’ve been slowly incubating over the last ten years before I even knew what the business idea was. I started out working in marketing and doing cartoons as a hobby.

The cartoons started to gain their own momentum, and over time I’ve started to focus on creating cartoons about marketing and have this weekly audience of about 100,000 people that read them.

A marketoonist is really shorthand for a way a brand can communicate with its customers using cartoons, and cartoons are “content worth sharing” in their own right – they’re funny, but they also have a subtle connection to what the brand stands for, so it can supplement or augment the way a brand or business communicates with those customers.

You’re a card-carrying member of the marketing community, having worked on both the brand and agency side, but most of your work seems to be devoted to smashing the industry’s sacred cows. Do you see yourself as an outside critic, or an inside observer?

I like to float back and forth. If you think about the overall category of marketing, there’s a very broad spectrum all the way from the snake oil salesman to marketing as a force for encouraging positive behaviour. What I like to do with my cartoons is put up a mirror for marketers to see themselves in a different light and potentially make changes or re-evaluate the way they do things.

Ultimately I subscribe to the Seth Godin school of marketing – that marketing is merely a remarkable story well told. That implies that you have to be doing something remarkable but also that you have to tell that story well and authentically.

And so a lot of my cartoons poke fun at or exaggerate when that doesn’t happen, but then I try to use my blog posts to show positive case studies when it’s done well.

Having been a marketer, I don’t want to critique marketing without putting myself under the magnifying lens because I’ve certainly been guilty too – I don’t see myself as a critic that’s immune to these things.

I always want every cartoon to make fun of myself and not just somebody else. When you get a collective laugh, people see themselves in the cartoons and I think that’s a positive thing.

Some of your recent cartoons poke fun at concepts like brand storytelling. Do you think brands can ever be taken seriously as content creators?

They can but they have to raise themselves to a higher standard. The big goal for a brand is to think less about their brand promise and more about their brand purpose – why are they actually there as a brand.

If your brand purpose is higher than the actual products you’re trying to sell, you can write content about that brand purpose and consumers will be interested because it will have actual, innate value to them.

If you broaden and extend what a brand stands for to a larger brand experience, and you’re creating content that’s larger than the features and benefits that you sell, then publishing becomes a natural extension of what you do. You transform yourself from being a product company to being a service company.

Your latest cartoon depicts a brand executive who seems to fundamentally misunderstand Facebook, and in the accompanying blog post you suggest that “many brands bring an advertising campaign mindset to social media.” What do you mean by that?

Social media shouldn’t be treated as a campaign because it’s an enduring part of the brand experience, not just a one-off with a beginning and an end. It’s more akin to a call centre where customers always have a connection to a brand.

I did a cartoon once that showed a legal review of a tweet. After all the red ink the tweet was far longer than 140 characters and the brand missed the event they were trying to tweet about by a week! If brands think of Facebook as a form of external communication like other forms of corporate communication they miss the dialogue and consumers can really tell.

It comes up again and again both for proactive marketing but also for reactive marketing when there’s a crisis. Brands often fall down in crisis management, take far too long to respond to customers, and that just fans the fire.

I’m reminded of your Brandtube cartoon in which an executive declares that in order to get the brand back on track all they have to do is produce a viral video. Are brands suffering from a case of inflated expectations when it comes to what social media can do?

I think they are. Everyone’s familiar with the success stories on social media, so there’s an expectation that you can just do a viral video as if it’s creating an FSI [free-standing insert] or an in-store display.

You can’t create viral media; you can create enough media with the potential to become viral. There’s a feeling that social media have a direct effect on sales when in fact it’s a far more indirect effect. If you have a long conversation over time, the indirect value is incredible. But the results are much harder to measure.

At the end of the day, I see social media predominantly as being about long-term investment and building an infrastructure. For example, a lot of brands look at their call centres as cost centres and try to minimize the amount of time that people talk to consumers. Zappos was the first one to break that and had a contest for who could stay on the phone the longest. The winner was something like six and a half hours.

You could ask what’s the ROI of the phone call, but symbolically, to say that we’re an organization that will spend that much time with a customer, it creates an incredible effect on the rest of the organization to want to go above and beyond on every consumer interaction.

It’s not a cost centre, but a value creation centre. That’s the same shift with social media – it’s an investment you make with many indirect returns.

A lot of your cartoons have to do with the creative process, and how the structure and bureaucracy of agencies sometimes get in the way of innovation. Does that come out of your own frustrations, and what are some ways we can overcome these institutional hurdles to produce more good ideas?

That definitely comes from my own experience, but also what I’ve seen everywhere. You very often have an idea that is fairly remarkable, but in the course of bringing that idea to life, the idea suffers a “death by a thousand cuts.”

The end result is often something that is mediocre, safe, and predictable – the edges have been sanded off the idea. That happens again and again whether it’s launching a new product or creating a piece of creative.

One way to break out of this is to create an organization that has the capability to make ideas stronger over time. When I worked at Method, we had floor-to-ceiling white boards on every vertical surface – we called it the Wiki Wall.

Rather than have a brainstorm once a quarter, we had an idea happen out in the open. Someone would start an idea on the corner of a wall and anyone within the organization had the ability to add to that idea. We weren’t allowed to say “Yes, but…,” only “Yes, and…” As the ideas went from inception to launch, they became stronger because everyone was adding to it.

That’s a very different approach than most companies take: leave the brainstorm and go back to the real world of the office where sacrifices are made and peace treaties are forged.

I’m creating a lot of cartoon material on that because it’s such a rich area, and it’s more crucial now than ever. In the 1950s you’d launch broadly appealing, fairly mediocre products and drive awareness through advertising. Nowadays, with the number of new products launched every year, the stakes are much higher and you need to have a remarkable product at the outset to have a chance of surviving.

There’s a great quote from the founder of Geek Squad that “advertising is a tax for unremarkable thinking” and so it pushes more that remarkable thinking to occur early on in the process rather than later.

What do you think cartoons can communicate about our world that words or other media cannot?

Seth Godin posted one of my cartoons a while ago and his main takeaway was that cartoons have this incredible power of connectivity between the reader and the cartoonist.

In having just a few simple lines, readers have to connect the dots themselves and make the connection with why the cartoon resonates with their situation. So there’s a bit of call and response.

The comments section of any cartoon that I post is often more interesting than the article that I write because people have their own interpretations and they apply it to their own situations in a way that I could never envision.

Cartooning has a long and rich history, and yet if you talk to many cartoonists, they’d say that it’s never been worse because of how newspapers are failing and the traditional paths to cartooning are broken. But cartoons have been described as the greatest loyalty engines ever created.

Nowadays, who needs loyalty engines? It’s brands. So when I look at the power of cartoons and how it can be applied to where we are today, the future is incredibly bright.