Michael Ouweleen, the recently appointed CMO of Cartoon Network and its sister channels Adult Swim and Boomerang, remembers the first time something inspired him creatively. It was, he recalls, a “work of art” with “the most subtle, smart, acting decisions” that had an “undeniably profound” effect on him.
It was Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck arguing about hunting season.
“From the raise of an eyebrow to the pointing of a finger and a pause–it’s just hilarious,” Ouweleen says. “I watched a bunch of Laurel and Hardys growing up and there’s even something different between Laurel and Hardy and this in terms of levels of finesse and artistry, and that’s what impacted me: The fact they’re such distinct characters that were alive but drawn–it’s magic to me and it’s still what keeps me coming in every day.”
Over the course of Ouweleen’s 18-year career with the network, he’s touched on just about every major development within in the company, co-creating the cult classic Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, serving as a creative director, and overseeing the launch of Adult Swim as well as several pivotal shows such as Ben 10 and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack.
Ouweleen spoke with Fast Company about reimagining the role of CMO, the surprising evolution of comedy, why cartoons are more important than ever, and how being a dad gave him a new perspective on leading his team.
You mentioned Bugs Bunny cartoons having a strong impact on you–what other cartoons piqued your creative curiosity?
My now wife and I started watching Space Ghost Coast to Coast late at night and that was my second insightful moment: The decisions those guys were making in terms of what was being said and the timing–those long, drawn out pauses for effect and then punctuating it with a comment–it was a revelation in me. Even back in 1995 when I first saw it, it felt to me like the pirates had gone into the control room and taken over the network. There’s something magic that comes from taking a drawing and making it real and convey real emotions–it’s spellbinding.
How did you get in with Cartoon Network?
I heard about an opening at a Christmas party in New York. Someone was like, “Who wants a job at Cartoon Network? There’s a headhunter looking!” I called the headhunter from the Christmas party, had an interview the next week, and I was here a month later and I haven’t left.
How have you seen cartoons evolve of the years?
Humor has changed significantly over the past five years into a form that I never saw coming, and that is a form that allows for sincerity and humor to co-exist. I’m a gen Xer so to me, growing up, humor was satire, irony, and sarcasm–it was sort of anti-authoritarian and needed, in a lot of ways, an opposing force.
I’m the dad of three boys and I understand where it’s coming from with this generation and what they respond to. I see it in shows we have like Adventure Time–the relationship between Finn and Jake is a real emotional relationship between two cartoon characters. That it can be real touching and then hilarious at the same time is a miracle and I never would have predicted it.
Do you see cartoons having a larger impact on society than they used to when they were just “for kids”?
I think humor is more important than it ever has been and cartoons are too. Humor has always been great about dealing with things on multiple levels and a way to address truth that’s uncomfortable to say any other way.
In a world that’s obviously going through political differences, religious differences, cartoons are one of the few art forms that translates globally. Everyone is going to root for the little mouse being chased by the cat. Part of our mission is to get behind great animation and help it travel as far as it can and give people a common culture.
You’ve spent most of your career as a creative and now you’re a CMO–has it been a big switch for you?
If anyone ever asked, “Would you want this job?” I would’ve said no. But now that I know where the network is heading I feel like it’s not a risk. It’s an opportunity–not to sound like a marketing guy!
I think everyone wants the creative part of me still. It’s not like, “Michael, would you get your hair cut and act normal.” They picked me because of my haircut–they want both parts of me. It’s not like my creative part has to be in the closet. It’s actually a rich opportunity for us to invent a new way to be a CMO.
How are you merging the two worlds together?
Over time design has become more and more important just in the way people experience things now–it’s more immediate and more in our faces every day. I’m interested in is finding ways to connect with people that takes more than 10 seconds. People are ready for it.
Even if it’s an inanimate object, I want it to tell a three-act story. I hope there’s this meaning, this story that comes across everything we do, even if it’s a T-shirt or a booth at Comic-Con.
You said your kids help you understand the comedy of their generation–have they inspired you as a leader in any way?
How I lead is hugely formed by having been a dad for the past 16 years. I try to approach it the same way I approach that which is I have some authority and I’ll say when I think things could be better, but mostly I’m looking out for the interest of the people I work with. Hopefully, if I’m doing it right, I’m giving them the space to figure things out and I’m only coming in to ask questions. I try to provoke as much conversation among us as possible because that’s when the good stuff happens.