Funny business

Paul Nolan

Tom Fishburne remembers sinking into the Sunday comics as an 11-year-old. After earning a master’s in business from Harvard and working for two decades in marketing with General Mills, Nestlé and other companies, he launched a new career by combining his hobby of cartooning with his professional experience.

SMM: You launched your full-time company, Marketoonist, in 2010. Explain who your clients are and how your work is divided.

Fishburne: Two-thirds of my work is content marketing — clients who use my cartoons as a fun form of content to help them connect with their audiences. One-third of what we do is internal culture change projects, much like I was doing at General Mills, so that companies can use the cartoons as teaching aids to talk about how they can approach their culture differently.

SMM: You gave a TED talk in which you say cartoons are among the most important tools in business. How so?

Fishburne: Much as I experienced in that large corporate job, there are things that companies need to talk about, but they have a difficult time talking about. Humor can be a Trojan horse that lets you bring up issues that are otherwise hard to discuss.

SMM: In that sense, your cartoons can really be a change agent.

Fishburne: I love to think about them in that way. In order to change, you need to look squarely at where you are. Particularly in large organizations, there is a reluctance sometimes to say it like it is. We worked recently with a large bank in Singapore that was trying to be more innovative. It was a large, hierarchical bank, and there were certain parts of their culture that they wanted to call out and say, “This is getting in the way.” Once employees saw their managers laughing along with them, it allowed them to talk about things that were otherwise taboo.

SMM: You have a diverse mix of clients —  and a very global reach. Everything from a travel-related organization in Australia to companies that provide loans. Is it challenging to address such a wide range of topics?

Fishburne: I’m not an expert in all of these industries, but I love learning about them. When I first approach them, it’s a little intimidating. It’s a world in which I may not be aware of the nuances. But as I start to spend time with them and understand the audience they are trying to reach, that’s when it really gets to the human place — the part that I can relate to the most. That’s usually where the joke is hiding — in some type of pain point the audience faces.

SMM: What do you find funny in marketing today? You poke a lot of fun at social media marketing.

Fishburne: There’s never a shortage of material. Marketers love the shiny new thing. In the last few years, there has been so much emphasis on what the shiny new thing is that sometimes marketers can get excited about that before they even have a strategy for how the shiny new thing may apply to their business.  

To read the full Q&A with Fishburne and find other Closers Q&A interviews, visit

Create a caption for this cartoon by Tom Fishburne and email it to The top 10 will be included in a drawing for a Maui Jim gift card. Put “Closers Caption” in the email subject line.

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