There are a lot of artistically-inclined people in the world of freelancing and creative entrepreneurship. Writers and designers come immediately to mind. Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void is certainly an example of a literal entrepreneurial artist.
He started out 20 years ago doodling cartoons on the back of business cards. Now he has a thriving business selling prints and originals to individuals, plus the hybrid of art and consulting he provides large enterprises seeking to reinforce or create a change in culture.
Beyond his art, some of the most creative things Hugh has done have been in the realm of marketing and business models. Yes, those are creative acts as well, and as you’ll hear, it’s MacLeod’s refusal to play by established rules and protocols that has led in large part to his amazing success.
Listen to Unemployable with Brian Clark below ...
Creatively Breaking the Rules of the Art Business, with Hugh MacLeod
Hugh MacLeod: My name’s Hugh Macleod. I’m a cartoonist. I make drawings designed to effect change inside large organizations, and I am definitely unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the show for people who can get a job, they’re just not inclined to take one, and that’s putting it gently. In addition to this podcast, thousands of freelancers and entrepreneurs get actionable advice and other valuable resources from the weekly Unemployable email newsletter. Join us by registering for our free Profit Pillars course, or choose to sign up for the newsletter only, at no charge. Simply head over to Unemployable.com, and take your business and lifestyle to the next level.
Brian Clark: Welcome to Unemployable. I am your host, Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Rainmaker Digital. I know there is a lot of artistically inclined people out there in the audience. In the world of freelancing and creative entrepreneurship in general, writers and designers come immediately to mind for me.
Hugh MacLeod of Gapingvoid is certainly an example of a literal entrepreneurial artist. He started out 20 years ago doodling cartoons on the back of business cards. Now he has a thriving business selling prints and originals to individuals like me–plus the hybrid of art and consulting he provides to large enterprises seeking to reinforce or create a change in their culture.
Beyond his art, some of the most creative things Hugh has done have been in the realm of marketing and business models. Yes, those are creative acts as well, and as you’ll hear, it was MacLeod’s refusal to play by established rules and protocols that has led, in large part, to his amazing success.
Hugh, how are you? Thank you so much for taking time to join us today.
Hugh MacLeod: Hey, Clark, how are you doing?
Brian Clark: Doing all right, man. I was just reflecting on the last time I saw you, which was at your exhibition that Mike Orren helped put on in Dallas was that right?
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah, Dallas. You gave the keynote to that, that weekend.
Brian Clark: That’s right. What was that, a year ago?
Hugh MacLeod: A year, just before Christmas I think. Yeah, around then.
Brian Clark: Cool.
Hugh MacLeod: About a year ago. It was cold I remember.
Brian Clark: Yeah. It was very windy and frigid in Dallas, which is not a thing you associate with Dallas.
Hugh MacLeod: Yes. It’s what you do. Yeah.
Brian Clark: Okay, so a lot of people know the Gapingvoid, Hugh Macleod’s backstory, but hopefully we are introducing you to some new people. Just so everyone knows, I was following Hugh before Copyblogger existed. I remember when I first met him at South by Southwest. It’s one of the few times that I felt a little star struck with a fellow blogger. Then, of course, he just turned out to be the most delightful guy, and we have been friends since.
Hugh, take us back a little bit because you have an amazing business based around your art, but it’s such an interesting story to go back to Manhattan—the copywriter, alone in the city, and the business cards.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah. My story depends on where you want to start. I did cartoons in college, in the college paper and stuff like that. Then I went and got a job in advertising because that’s what you do once you graduate. I was an English major. I gave up drawing cartoons for a while.
Then, in 1998, I got a job in New York. I moved to New York from Chicago. Lonely guy, didn’t know anybody in New York–hang out in bars and coffee shops and stuff. I just started drawing on the back of business cards, little doodles, which are now called Hugh Cards. And the idea was, you’re sitting at a bar, pen and paper, just draw these little random cartoons everywhere–I became kind of obsessive about those.
To make a long story short, last time I counted, this was years ago, I have drawn over 10,000 of them, literally 10,000 of them. It became my thing. Then fast forward, three or four years after that, I started blogging them. I just started posting them, and they became an Internet thing, a blogging thing.
Brian Clark: Of course, that’s how I found you. Now, tell us what inspired you to say, “Hey, you know this blogging thing,” which is usually someone’s personal opinions about what they had for lunch or whatever, and you’re like, “You know what? No, I’m just going to post my art. When did that come to you?
What Inspired Hugh to Creatively Break the Established Rules
Hugh MacLeod: It was two stages. The first stage was when I realized that I was never going to get invited to the party. I was never going to be picked by The New Yorker, Hollywood–who does the picking these days? Or back then, who does the picking or the publishers? My stuff was just too fringe. I was never going to be able to like make a living as a newspaper cartoonist, a television cartoonist, or whatever.
We’re talking about like late ’90s here or early 2000s, and I realized, “Well, I don’t actually need to be discovered by these people.” My number was 10,000. “What I need to do is find 10,000 people who want to give me money once a year.” If I could do that–like sell them T-shirts, sell them books, sell them merch, whatever, sell them subscriptions–then I can make a living. With the Internet, that’s feasible.
Then, of course, what happened was Six Apart came along, and WordPress came along. And I realized I didn’t have to pay a webmaster. I could just build it myself for free. I could basically reach these 10,000 people in a cheap, free, easy global media. If I had something to say, I’d say it. There was nobody to say you can’t say it because there’s no editor. There’s no gatekeeper. There’s no publisher. There’s no apparatus, just a piece of software.
Brian Clark: I know you are highly influenced by Seth Godin, as I am, and you started your blog. What you’re saying could be coming out of Seth’s mouth, and I’m the same way. But it was 2001 when you first started blogging, is that right?
Hugh’s First Steps into Blogging
Hugh MacLeod: Yes, it was 2001. I actually sat on it. I had the cartoons. I started the cartoons in like 1997, 1998, around Christmastime. I just sat on them for three or four years because I knew that, one, I’d have to pay somebody else to build the Internet. Back in the ’90s, that would have been really expensive.
I was enjoying just being anonymous, just random, and just trying to keep it to myself for a while, while I was working on it, if that makes any sense. I’d been doing it about four years before I put them on the Internet.
Brian Clark: Wow. That’s interesting, and of course, I make this point all the time. When you got started, ‘you’ meaning those of us who were online on the late ’90s, there weren’t all these blogs telling you what to do or conferences, courses, or anything. There was nothing.
Hugh MacLeod: No, there was absolutely nothing. I remember things like Miller Lite would do a website full of flash animation, and these big advertising agencies would do these big … and remember restaurants had soundtracks and all that? They were all very clunky and pretentious. Websites back then were very, very unwieldy.
Brian Clark: Yeah, they were bad.
Hugh MacLeod: Then the simple blog format came along. I love the sparsity of it–is that the right word?–but just the minimalism of it because I don’t handle a lot of detail very well. I’m not very good at handling a lot of clutter.
Brian Clark: Well, blogging really became the first time that content was emphasized over a brochure business website, or like you said, the fancy flash stuff that the ad people were coming up with. It really was the substance actually matters, and that’s really how blogging evolved and grew. Then you get to 2006 with Copyblogger, and now we’re saying, “Hey, you know we can make businesses out of this.”
Hugh MacLeod: Well, I actually had quite a hit with that earlier because, back in 2004, 2005, I was a big blog evangelist. I was publishing my cartoons. I was basically a marketing guy, freelance marketing guy. I had a friend in England who had to be one of the best tailors in the world. This guy makes suits for the Prince of Wales. He makes suits for Jony Ive. He’s a world class tailor. A) Being a world-class craftsman, B) have all these wonderful stories of being a tailor, I said those would make great blog posts. He said “What’s a blog?” I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what a blog is.” We built this website called EnglishCut.com where an authentic tailor started talking about what the real deal is with real tailoring, not the crap you read in the magazines. His businesses exploded as a result of this. It’s still going strong.
Why Success Depends on Having a Compelling Product
Hugh MacLeod: I was thinking about that because, when you think about media marketing, you think, “Well, millions of people will have to watch my commercial, or millions of people have to see my Super Bowl ad, or whatever.”
But see, Thomas, he can only make 100 suits a year. He only needs 100 customers a year. In fact, most customers buy two or three suits at a time, so he needs about 30 customers. Let’s say 1 percent of your visitors end up buying your stuff, so he only needs a readership of 3,000 people. He doesn’t need a Superbowl ad.
Brian Clark: Yeah. I remember that period. It’s funny because we were both following the same path. You were selling bespoke suits. You were the content and marketing guy, and he was the product guy. I did the same thing with courses, software, et cetera. I think more and more people need to explore that model.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah, but also, with the Internet, we think of, “Well, you need a lot of Facebook ‘likes,’ you need a lot of Retweets, and you need a lot of all that social media stuff.” What you need are paying customers.
Brian Clark: Yeah, exactly.
Hugh MacLeod: You need a product that’s actually compelling. Then you need a reason and a way of expressing why it’s compelling. Then you need consistency about that. I don’t want to mention that company in Boston, that big company in Boston. There is no kind of like, autobot marketing things—”for three easy payments of $500, we could give you this marketing bot, and all of a sudden, all your marketing problems are going to go away.” That’s terrible thing to think.
Brian Clark: It doesn’t exist. That technology can assist, but it’s still a human being or multiple human beings that have to push it.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah. Sorry, I’m going to plug Copyblogger here. You know I’m a big fan of you all. But your challenge is you probably have customers who expect you to give them lots of complicated little thingys. Actually, you challenge is to say, “No, it’s real simple. It’s not hard. You got to do what we say, but it’s not hard. By making it more complicated, I’m not going to make your life easier,” if that makes sense. Your product’s very philosophically quite simple, I think, in a good way.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I get what you are saying, and I appreciate that. Let me ask you this, it’s like we’ve been running in tandem for a decade at least. What year was it that you started selling your art online?–because you know I own several of your pieces probably.
How Hugh’s Focus Evolved to the Intersection of Work and Art: Making a Difference in a Constantly Changing World
Hugh MacLeod: Actually, that came later. Gapingvoid, my website Gapingvoid.com, it started off as a blog, which I started. It actually became a company that I co-founded with my business partner, Jason Korman, who was a client of mine originally. We did some wine. He was a wine entrepreneur, and we were the people who brought social media to the alcohol business.
Brian Clark: Because alcohol was already in the social media, not the other way around.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah. We were the first company to use social media to promote a consumer good product, or one of the first anyways. He sold his wine company, and he was a bit of an art dealer already, so we started publishing and selling art together. That was in 2009.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that sounds right.
Hugh MacLeod: 2008, 2009. What we found that we really liked to do was to change people’s behavior in companies. We liked making art for business. We liked making art for company walls.
Brian Clark: That was the shift I was leading up to. There was this idea that, “Okay, I’m a popular blogger. People like my work. I will sell to the audience,” which included me, and it obviously worked to some degree. But at some point–and I thought this was brilliant–you repositioned … well. you didn’t really preposition because this is how you were aligned all along. The hughtrain, all of the manifestos, and whatnot that you also wrote. The theme was consistent, of change, that the world is changing, and you have to change with it.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah. Also that work is a very meaningful part of our lives, and we have to deal with that meaningfulness, or else. Our work, our jobs, or whatever, the money we make, is a big part of the human condition.
Art’s all about the human condition, so I was interested in how art and work relate to each other and how they affect each other. How art expresses work, how art can improve work, how art and work play tennis together, I suppose. I don’t know. That’s been my thing. Where does art and work meet? As an artist, how can I actually make a difference?
There’s a guy, like a digital directior, who’s one of the biggest PR firms in the world, he said, “Well, why do you go off and do that? Why’d you do that with Gapingvoid?” I said, “Well, I wanted Gapingvoid to be a real business.” We didn’t want Hugh MacLeod just to be one more celebrity freelancer out there. “Aren’t I clever. Who wants to buy art?”
I’m like Seth Godin. I want to go in there into the real world and change things in a real way, not just sell pretty pictures. I want my work to go inside offices and actually make a real difference.
Brian Clark: At some point, before you made that move, did you feel like you were kind of preaching to the choir, and you’re like, “Wait, I need to be in the enterprise? They’re the people who need to change.”
Hugh MacLeod: It’s not so much they need to change. It’s more like the world’s always going to change anyways. It was more like, how do you be helpful? How do you make a difference? What problem are you actually solving? I make pretty good pictures, I suppose, but so do a lot of people–but so?
Brian Clark: It seems to me that you’re brought in specifically to effect change in culture in positive way.
Hugh MacLeod: Correct, yes.
Brian Clark: Talk a little bit about that.
Effecting Cultural Change in a Positive Way Through Art
Hugh MacLeod: Well, it’s not just me. It’s the whole team. We position ourselves as consultants, and what we realized was, most companies have the same problems, especially big companies. We work with big companies–big companies don’t suffer from lack of money, and they don’t suffer from lack of talent or resources or technology.
Where they trip up is their cultures are always a little bit weird. To us, the idea of culture is like a real linchpin that people either take it for granted or they turn it into a cult thing. We decided if you can help fix the culture, if you can even make the culture 1 percent better, you can create a lot of really amazing value very quickly. We thought, “Well, we can use this art and our other offerings to help them improve their culture. Then we can create a lot of value.”
Brian Clark: Yeah, for this very podcast, remember the pyramid where …
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah. Losers, clueless, and sociopaths.
Brian Clark: No, it’s a different one. It’s the one that says paycheck to paycheck, project to project, adventure to adventure. That is the Unemployable story right there, and you did it with a few words and some squiggles–and it was amazing.
Hugh MacLeod: Well, it’s just practice. Drawing up cartoons, eventually you make it look easy.
Brian Clark: Yeah, not 10,000 hours. It’s 10,000 cartoons.
Hugh MacLeod: Well, yeah. I’ve actually literally drawn those, and I think it takes about that to get good. You must love it because 10,000 cartoons is a lot of cartoons. You must actually love the process. You can’t just say, “I’m going to do it, so I can get my bank.”
Brian Clark: So you mentioned your team, and I know that’s something I struggled with before Copyblogger. I know a lot of people listening right now, they’re a solo, one way or another. They’re either freelancing, or they’ve got a small business. But as you say, meaning scales. People don’t. How do you build a meaningful team in the context of art that is so closely tied to one man?
Why Solopreneurs Need a Meaningful Team Built of People Who Complement Them
Hugh MacLeod: Boy, well, first of all, it’s not my team. It’s our team. It’s the whole team, first and foremost. Boy oh boy, you have to recognize that you can’t do everything yourself.
Brian Clark: You think Jason was instrumental in this aspect of it?
Hugh MacLeod: Oh, 100, 1,000 percent, yeah. He’s very good at running businesses. He’s very good at selling. He’s very good at kicking my ass when I go into prima-donna mode.
Brian Clark: Yeah, you need that complimentary partner. I needed Tony Clark at the beginning. You need Jason because we do what we do, but we don’t do other things all that well. I try to stress that to people–that, that’s not a bad thing.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah. Then we have Jessica, who is our Six Sigma consultant, who is very, very clever, and we have Doctor Jeff, who’s actually a medical doctor. We actually have a medical doctor on staff, and his job is to relate to the medical profession because a lot of stuff we do is medical related. Then we have Laura and her team. Laura does all the operations.
It’s just a big job. You have to choose people who are complementary to you. You have to like each other, and you have to respect each other. You have to be nice to each other. That doesn’t mean you have to be BFFs with them, if that makes any sense. In fact, going into business with your BFFs is probably the worst thing you can do.
Brian Clark: I agree.
Hugh MacLeod: You’ll just end up losing your friends and not make any money–and your money.
Brian Clark: It’s better to become partners and then friends than it is to become partners with a friend because the context changes radically, and it’s tough.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah, also, sometimes you’ve got to fire people. It’s really hard to fire a friend, especially if you grew up together, playing ball or whatever, painting fences, chasing girls. Now, with family businesses, you kind of trust each other, I suppose. I wonder if the same rules applies for family. Can you go into business with family? There are very successful family businesses out there.
Brian Clark: I think the bond there is tighter. Well, the way my family works, not as smoothly as the business, but a family is a business. I think maybe there’s a natural extrapolation there that doesn’t occur with people, like you said, you went drinking with, or chasing girls, or whatever.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah, families are permanent where friends are temporary.
Brian Clark: You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. Maybe that makes all the difference.
Hugh MacLeod: Right. But with a family member, you can have a relationship with them when you’re five, when you’re 50, and when you’re 90. Whereas, a lot of friends, you have in college. Then you have other friends when you move to the city. Then you have other friends when you move to the country club. Building a team, I would say it’s just complementary skill sets really. You’ve got to complement each other.
Brian Clark: The first thing you have to do is identify what you can’t do, so you can find someone who can do that–or shouldn’t be doing.
Hugh MacLeod: Or you and Simone. Simone’s probably willing to do things that you’re terrible at. I don’t want to tell you what they are because I don’t work there. Or you might be a dreamer, and somebody else might be more of a technocrat or process person or something.
Brian Clark: I also say that Sonia is the best writer in the company, and I don’t mind saying that at all. She’s not as good at strategy as I am. So I let her write, and she lets me strategize–even though we’re both, at core, writers.
Hugh MacLeod: Right, right–complement. But also you have enough confidence in your own abilities to be able to say, “Yeah, she’s better than me.”
Brian Clark: Oh absolutely. I love people that are better than me.
Hugh MacLeod: Oh yeah. They’re way more useful.
Brian Clark: I want to talk a little bit, because you haven’t written a book in a while. Are you writing any more books?
How Fiction Books Impact Your Creativity (and Why You Shouldn’t Write Just Another 300-Page, ‘Boring’ Business Book)
Hugh MacLeod: Oh boy, there’s a question. Right now, I’m working on a proposal for my next book.
Brian Clark: Oh, okay.
Hugh MacLeod: I was writing business books there for about five years.
Brian Clark: Yeah, run down the list for everyone if they’re not familiar.
Hugh MacLeod: My first book was called Ignore Everybody, and that was my masterpiece. That was a meditation on how to be creative. The second book was called Evil Plans. That was a similar format, about the unification of work and love. How do you get paid doing something you love? What’s the secret? It was a meditation on that.
The third book was called Freedom Is Blogging in Your Underwear, which is little more than a long essay with some cartoons in it. Then I illustrated one of Seth Godin’s books called V Is for Vulnerable. My next book, I’m not ready to tell what that is yet, but it has something to do with culture.
Brian Clark: That makes sense.
Hugh MacLeod: I will say that, you’re a business writer. You read business books all the time–as do I, as do a lot of our friends. I guess we’re all sick of business books.
Brian Clark: That’s true.
Hugh MacLeod: When one of our friends writes one and sends us a copy, we just kind of get that feeling in our stomach, and we go, “Oh sh*t, 300 pages of nothing.” What I would like to do–we have Seth Godin, again, to thank for this–is books that are actually really highly enjoyable and invigorating to read, as opposed to wading through the porridge.
Brian Clark: Yeah, like three blog posts augmented by 40,000 anecdotes. I can’t do any more. If I start writing books, I’m going to make them little books that are just like, “Hey, there’s no fluff in this thing. Here it is.”
Brian Clark: Yeah, I think there’s a place for that, really. Attention spans aren’t growing.
Hugh MacLeod: No. It’s really funny, though. I read those kind of books, but I also read, in the last year, Middlemarch, 800 pages. I read Crime and Punishment, and I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov.
Brian Clark: Crime and Punishment is one of my favorites of all time.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah, I’m reading these really big 19th century bricks.
Brian Clark: That’s the contrast to the same old business book. Fiction can actually inspire your business creativity in unexpected ways, at least it does for me.
Hugh MacLeod: Oh sure, and also, there’s a richness to it that you don’t get in blog posts, that you don’t get in Business Insider listicles. The richness of the human existence. You’re in the business of talking about business, as am I, but what I find is there’s lots of same old sh*t out there.
When I want to be inspired, I don’t actually go to the Business Insider or whatever, or Forbes or anything. Go read Dostoevsky. Go read Shakespeare.
Brian Clark: Yeah. Austin Kleon, not a couple weeks ago, said the same thing. It’s always been my experience that that’s correct.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah, exactly.
Brian Clark: I want to touch on something that we really kind of started with, which was this idea that you were an artist, and yet no one was going to pick you. I’ve read many, many times you rally against the traditional gallery system and how screwed up it is and everything. I know there are people who are listening who, they have that … for you, it was galleries, the way art worked, and you just said, “No. I’m sidestepping that.” And that’s really the spirit of this whole thing.
What’s your obstacle, and how are you going to sidestep it? Do you have any advice on that?
Hugh’s Advice on Bucking Tradition and Sidestepping Obstacles
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah, believe in what you are doing. Also, I would say have a realistic number actually. To me, it was 10,000 people. That was the economics of T-shirts and books. Now, if you’re selling thousand-dollar paintings, obviously, you have a different number.
“Here’s my product. How many people do I need to buy one of these every year to have the life I want? Where are they? How do I reach them? Once I do, will they actually care?” Make sense?
Brian Clark: Yeah, it makes perfect sense.
Hugh MacLeod: It’s the people that you connect with on that level, they’re going to make your life work out. The clever people in The New Yorker, The New York Times, they’re not going to make your life work out one way or the other. Your life’s going to work out just fine with or without them.
In the late nineties, I spent six months in Los Angeles just because I was doing something there for a while, and I just noticed all these people waiting for their big break, waiting to be discovered. I had this idea that it wouldn’t happen to most of them, and I was right.
All that waiting ended up to be a whole lot of nothing, if that makes any sense. Not just actors, but film directors, editors, you name it. They’re all waiting to make it into the right club, waiting to be picked by Steven Spielberg, Mike Judge, or whoever.
It was like high school to me. “You got to be in the cool gang because you’re cool.” I always said to myself, “Well, what if the cool gang doesn’t want you? Then what do you do? Go work at Burger King?” To me, it was this idea that your destiny was wrapped up in somebody else’s opinion seemed rather …
Brian Clark: That’s exactly when I quit my law job. I’m like, “I want to be a writer.” Do you want to write novels? I was like, “No, I don’t want to deal with New York publishing.” You want to write screen plays? “No, I don’t want to deal with Hollywood. Oh, the Internet … ” I did the same thing you did–different context, though.
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah, but also you happened to find the business world, especially content marketing world, very interesting. You said, “Well, this is kind of cool. You type something, and someone in Iowa gives you money. Cool.”
Brian Clark: Exactly. It wasn’t that magical at first, but it was a revelation that, “Oh wait, if I can figure out how to sell things, then I can write for a living.”
Hugh MacLeod: But I remember you were working out live online. Your blog posts weren’t how-tos. That was Brian Clark figuring it out for himself and writing it. It was a work in progress.
Brian Clark: Oh, it always is.
Hugh MacLeod: You’re writing the same advice you give yourself. It’s good. Also, with Copyblogger–no offense–but you’re always trying to make sh*t up, in a good way. You’re always trying new stuff.
Brian Clark: You have to. The worst thing to me is, I feel like stagnation is a result of a form of arrogance where you’re like, “Oh, I got this, and it’s going to stay this way.” I know it won’t. Unless I shake myself up first, someone else is going to come along and do that, and I don’t like that.
Hugh MacLeod: You also have the curse of winning formula. Copyblogger has this house style, which is very confident, very direct, and very fitting. And the problem of having a winning formula is it makes you want to be formulaic, if that makes any sense.
Brian Clark: It does.
Hugh MacLeod: If you have a winning formula, it’s very hard to change. It’s very hard to change your game if you’re winning all the time. But then it makes it harder to reinvent yourself, and reinventing yourself is actually quite…
Brian Clark: You just have to stay ahead of yourself. So enough about me, Hugh. You’re not ready to talk about the new book. Is there anything coming up that we should be looking out for?
Hugh’s Focus on Consulting and Helping Big Companies Solve Big Problems–Through Art
Hugh MacLeod: Anything that’s coming up that we should be looking out for?
Brian Clark: Any speaking, any galleries?
Hugh MacLeod: No. What we’re doing now is we’re getting to the point right now, we tend to concentrate most on client work. We tend to concentrate on big companies with big problems.
Brian Clark: Effectively this client work is them commissioning you to do art, but also giving advice within the context of that?
Hugh MacLeod: Yes. Well, the art’s the tip of the iceberg. We go in, and we interview the company. We do deep dives into the company, saying, “Okay, how does your company actually work from a people point of view? What actually makes the company tick?” Then we notice things that work, and we notice things that don’t work. We do an analysis, and then we make recommendations. But I also do a suite of art around the analyses.
For example, we were doing this one gig for a very large pharma company out on West Coast. Everybody’s so nice there, and the stakes are so high because it’s big pharma. Everybody’s very circumspect about what comes out of their mouth. Everything has such a high degree of impact that people are very worried that they’ll say the wrong thing. Lots of trepidation.
We do this big piece for their hallway. It’s just two guys talking to each other, and the one guy goes, “I need your honest opinion.” The other guy goes, “I would rather give you a kidney.” That was designed to give people a chuckle as they walk past it. We do this kind of internal culture bombs inside companies just to get people talking about issues and stuff.
That’s what we do because I figure that, if you can talk about it, you can laugh about it. You want to spread ideas really easily. Instead of sending a corporate memo about what you do, you put it in a cartoon, and then put that cartoon in the bathroom–in the men’s room, the ladies room. People will see it because everybody goes to the bathroom.
Those are ways of spreading ideas inside organizations. You can use cartoons to say what really matters about a company–what’s important, what you value, what you fear, what keeps you up at night.
The other thing we’re doing right now, we’re doing a lot of ebooks. We do these cartoon ebooks. We’ll write a little book on an issue inside the company to do with whatever culture the vision of where we’re going, what we value, or stuff like that. We’ll do 20 paragraphs, should say meditations. Then we’ll do 20 cartoons to accompany them. It’s a nice little cartoon book for people to pass around as a social object.
Brian Clark: I’ve got to say, Hugh, you’ve got the most fascinating business model of any cartoonist I know. Think about it. This is what’s so valuable about this because people say, “Well, I want to draw or cartoon or create art.” Then they follow the path that has been set for them since Charles Schultz, and they don’t make it. We live in a different world now. You don’t have to take that path. You can do anything. It’s just fascinating to me.
Hugh’s Advice to Young Writers on Bucking Tradition and Getting Creative
Hugh MacLeod: Yeah. Also, and you’ll notice this as a writer. It says, “Well okay, I want to be a writer. Okay, I’ll just go get my [inaudible 00:34:20] program at Oberlin, and I’ll write about literature. I’ll write short stories.” And then what? Nothing. Whereas, you use writing to actually interface with the real world.
I tell this to young people, these kids who are all depressed about the fact that they’re English majors instead of studying engineering–I say, “There’s so much need for good writing in business. If you can write, you’re always going to work. If you’re the only 24 year old or 26 year old in your office who can actually write, you’re going to be irreplaceable to these people.
My advice to young writers is not to get depressed because they’re writers but actually to celebrate it but also to find an interesting real world application for it–not necessarily advertising or content marketing. The demand for good writing in business is way higher than the actual supply. As somebody who hires writers, you’ll know this. Where are the good writers? For god’s sake, I want one.
Brian Clark: Trying to help make them, but your point is well-taken. Hugh, thank you so much for your time. The insights here at the intersection of art, commerce, and most importantly, business model, it’s got to have people’s wheels turning out there–and that’s the idea.
Hugh MacLeod: Oh, sure. You’re my favorite content marketing person. You’re the only person I listen to where content marketing is actually really, really interesting consistently to me. It’s an honor for me. It really is.
Brian Clark: Okay, people, I hope that, that has been useful. I know it has been for me. If you want to be creative and artistic and make a living, you have to be just as creative in the ways that you get the word out and how you structure your business in order to make money.
It’s all an act of creativity, so treat it that way. Don’t treat the business side as a necessary evil. It can be a lot of fun, trust me. I will leave it at that, and you know what to do–keep going.