Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod: Almost Famous

By , Columnist

Hugh MacLeod

Hugh Macleod wasn't always famous but if you ask him today, he'll still tell you that's not the point. Despite having a blog that gets 1.5 million hits a month, a Wall Street Journal Top Ten Business books title and the most downloaded manifesto ever on Change This, out-running even Tom Peters, Hugh Macleod will tell you that's he's a cartoonist who was lucky enough to have the Internet cross his less than famous career path at a certain point roughly ten years ago.

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Drowning the sorrows of his seeming non-career at the time with a friend, the friend asked Hugh what he was going to do to improve things. "I'm going to start a blog and publish my cartoons," he replied. "What's a blog?" his friend inquired. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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I met Hugh in 1989 as we both sat in the new employee orientation seminar at the Leo Burnett company in Chicago. I was about 10 years into a reasonably successful advertising career and Hugh was fresh out of the University of Texas, hired as a copywriter. Bored pretty much s***less with deep delves into the employee manual and the offerings of insurance policies and 401k options, Hugh and I became friends in that meeting and have remained so to this day. Working in the same building for the next few years I watched Hugh try his hand at being a commercial copywriter but it was painfully obvious that it would never have the lure of drawing snarky cartoons that most of his superiors would tell him were of no commercial value - not until the Internet came along, that is.

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Hugh's late '90s were spent in New York making a decent go at copywriting and finally beginning to make a decent living, but it was there that his love/hate relationship with the city would inspire some of his most inspiring work. Starting the prototypical New York dream living in a YMCA and escalating to a six figure salary, MacLeod saw the lure of the city, juxtaposed with the cold reality of the place. Most people just hated their lives, he thought. Then unemployment called, thankfully, and he began his therapy of drawing cartoons "on the back of business cards" in bars and other places of relative solitude and appropriate liquids.

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I remember receiving emails from him in the early 2000s, care-taking for a farmhouse in Scotland (his family's native country) and doing bit and piece copy work in Edinborough and London. He encouraged me to take a look at this new thing he was doing called a"blog" and I found it entertaining but couldn't see now that was going to make him any money either. But over the next few years he was able to build and cultivate an audience of creative people and techies who found his work just the tonic for their creatively unappreciated lives.

Gradually people like Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki took a liking to his work and he began to accumulate a following. Doing guerrilla cartoon work that began popping up on employee desks from Microsoft to Dell, his blog became a techie must-read and his How to be Creative series of tips and lessons from his time in the business became a mini bible for those in the creative arts. MacLeod had begun to find the Holy Grail of the disenfranchised everywhere - a life where you tell the other residents of your particular hell that there just might be a light at the end of that tunnel - a chance to be the "anti self-help" guru.

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2009 would see his creative tip series published as the book Ignore Everybody, a collection of creative observations and cartoons and also ascendance to the Top 10 recommend lists at both the Wall Street Journal and Amazon. But with success also came detractors. Robert S, Costic, a reviewer on Amazon, didn't like his second book, Evil Plans, at all. "The book is kind of like fast food", he says. "It was apparently easy to make, it's easy to read, and while it may feel good at the time its quality is dubious. We have a 170-page book filled with two page chapters and a lot of pages consisting entirely of two-by-three inch cartoons with bumper sticker phrases such as 'Love doesn't have a purpose; love is a purpose.'" Makes you wonder if Mr. Costic's name name has been misspelled.
Forever_Copy.1 High MacLeod.jpegAnd so goes the life of an artist. Even knowing Hugh I would say I miss the venom in his earlier work, now replaced with what could even be considered schmaltzy in some of his Love series - but what I think almost anyone can appreciate about his work us that he has taken a passion - in his case, the art of cartooning - and turned it into an actionable business. He draws cartoons, he writes books, does private commissions, gets the odd consulting gig now and again, and sells limited edition prints every day through his website.

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Famous is relative in Hugh's case. The thing about it is, that in certain measures, being poor, being an artist, and being an a**hole sometimes were what drove him to success in the first place. Should he ever loose the edge that caused too many people to relate to his work in the beginning, he's smart enough to know that at that point he wouldn't have a business anymore - so being almost famous might just be good enough for him.

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David has spent most of his career in advertising. That alone should call his writing skills into question. David currently writes the Wild Wild East Dailies from Saigon but has trouble seeing the forest for the trees because it's a jungle out there.

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