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He’s the ultimate overnight success. But like most, his success wasn’t overnight at all.

Fifteen years ago, a born-in-America Scotsman named Hugh MacLeod started drawing ironic little sketches on the backs of business cards. Today he’s a confidant of marketing mavens like Seth Godin, friends with geek bigwigs such as Robert Scoble and Michael Arrington, a frequent guest on the Gillmor Gang, and a consultant who counts tech giants such as Cisco, Microsoft, and Intel among his clients.

Hugh MacLeod’s not the only one transforming business with art. When you’re finished this article, check out How a 1-man cat-drawing startup won a Mark Cuban investment

Not to mention that his “How To Be Creative” manifesto has been downloaded from ChangeThis a record 4.5 million times. Or that he’s written three successful books.

Art, meet business (cards)

“I’ve always drawn cartoons,” MacLeod told me when we talked. “I started drawing on business cards because they were very portable. And I lived in a very small New York apartment. It was sort of a minimum viable art.”

Four years after inventing business card art, MacLeod started his blog, Gaping Void. After a year of publishing Cluetrain-ish content, he met authors Cory Doctorow and Seth Godin and realized a new movement was underfoot: Technological innovations were changing the way we were communicating and how people and companies were interacting.

Part of the blue monster series for Microsoft helping the company redefine its image of itself“I wanted to be part of the conversation, and because I was the only one doing cartoons in the space, I got noticed,” he says.

That led to dropping the day job, selling his cartoons online, and doing groundbreaking work for clients such as Stormhoek, a winery, and Microsoft (you may remember the big blue Monster, pictured right). The focus was creating “social objects,” a novel idea in the early 2000s. MacLeod defines social objects as conversation starters, things that create interactions among people around ideas.

Yet the goal for MacLeod was much simpler: not getting fired.

“I came out of a corporate background, but 10 years or so ago I realized that every time I became unemployed, I had to find a new job. Most people’s biggest accomplishment of the week was ‘I didn’t get fired.’ But I had this idea that wouldn’t it be great if I had 10,000 who liked my art and gave me money every year.”

Left brain, meet right brain

That’s where current business partner Jason Korman enters the scene. Formerly the chief executive of Stormhoek, Korman hired MacLeod in 2004 to help the winery break into the American market the new-fashioned way: with a tiny marketing budget, a quirky sense of humor, and a take-no-prisoners social media strategy.

Four years later, in 2008, Korman was looking for his next big gig, and MacLeod was looking for a way to expand without blowing his brains out.

“I don’t have the time to or the process brain to run the business,” MacLeod told me. “I’m not good at that, so it’s nice to have a biz partner.”

Above: A business card MacLeod created for Shit Creek Consulting

Image Credit: Gaping Void

So a marriage of convenience and a match made in heaven was struck: art and business, together at last. And Social Object Factory was born.

To Korman, it was a totally obvious thing to not seek a normal, safe, well-paid corporate job and to join MacLeod as a two-person team reinventing corporate communications, branding, and even, perhaps, how companies think about themselves and their products.

“Hugh has this amazing creative talent,” Korman said when I talked to him. “And it’s my job to figure out how to make a business out of it.

“And while the client list looks like a who’s who of corporate America, some clients need a little bit of help understanding the concept. The question we sometimes get is: What can you do with a cartoon?”

Science, meet art

Korman’s answer is simple: quite a lot. But to help those who don’t get it immediately, he’s dug into the science of images and communication. After all, despite Social Object Factory’s success with massive multinational clients, it’s one thing to know it works and another know how it works.

Above: Simple ideas, powerfully conveyed, with obvious implications

Image Credit: Gaping Void

“The science of what we do it that, regardless of whether you say you’re a visual or an auditory learner, all of us understand visual information a lot quicker than the written word,” Korman told me. “So you have to give messages people can digest, understand, and share instantaneously.”

That economy of communication is hard to do, and there aren’t a lot of people that can do it well. Which is why, says MacLeod, he’s working as hard as he can right now And why, as Korman adds, the company is doubling revenues every year.

But the two partners are not planning to sacrifice quality for quantity.

“I don’t know if we could bring on other artists,” says MacLeod. “The style is kinda branded.” And, adds Korman, they made a decision at the very beginning to stay true to their style.

As they say in boardrooms: Dance with the one that brought you.

Image credits: Gaping Void

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