Hallmark’s Court Jester
Corporate Report Magazine
Gordon MacKenzie bounces along the sterile corridor at Hallmark Cards Inc. staring at the floor, his silver ponytail bobbing behind him. Suddenly he sees me standing in the lobby and starts skipping like a kid: leaping and landing, leaping and landing. By now I should expect this sort of thing.
The first time I interviewed MacKenzie — the man charged with keeping Hallmark creative — he led me frolicking through Kaleidoscope, a children’s playroom; confessed to being a recovering alcoholic; and spilled the emotional tale of his rebirth at age 53 at the Esalen Institute, a California mecca for the physically and spiritually unfulfilled.
Now the puckish, balding, 56-year-old is skipping toward me, and I, after a moment of wavering, leap into a clumsy skip, too, crashing through armies of dark-suited people bustling past. Once again, MacKenzie has sent protocol out for doughnuts.
Gordon MacKenzie is called “The King” by some at Hallmark and a jester by others. He’s an artist who has gained the patronage of Don Hall himself. He’s a thirty-year veteran, yet a rebel. He pokes fun at corporate bureaucracy and gets away with it. He’s a New Age hippie with as many theories about his own psyche as Carl Sagan has about the universe.
He’s Hallmark’s Creative Paradox.
Three years ago, while managing the Humor Workshop, a humor think tank he founded at Hallmark, MacKenzie was approached by Hallmark managers. They proposed that he release his department and become, instead, a creative troubleshooter, floating from department to department, helping with special projects.
At first, MacKenzie suspected sabotage. He had a reputation as a malcontent. And he had clashed with co-workers at the Humor Workshop. He figured this was the top brass’s way of dfffusing this crazy bomb on their hands.
To the contrary, they made him a star.
His professional title is Creative Paradox, a name he concocted while jogging. He dresses like a Dead Head, converses like Leo Buscaglia, and plays like Winnie the Pooh.
MacKenzie spends his days bucking the system to find fresh solutions to stale problems. This year, for example, he surprised Hallmark regional managers by whipping out his Tibetan temple bells at a brainstorming session he was supposed to emcee. The managers were supposed to come up with novel ideas for their regional meetings. MacKenzie first entranced them by turning out the lights and having them meditate to the sweet, low tone of the temple bells. Then he asked them to shout out everything they hated about regional meetings of the past. The managers went wild hurling complaints. Finally they narrowed it down to the six worst and found solutions to those. The regional meetings wound up like trade shows, with each department setting up a booth to show other departments what they did.
Recently he orchestrated an emotional seminar for owners and managers of Hallmark Card stores. The topic was nurturing one’s inner child. MacKenzie has a drinking cup for his inner child that is a demi-tasse version of the giant, burnt-orange mug he drinks from himself.
Early in his career as a paradox he helped design a Hallmark restaurant called Out to Lunch Burgers. He and some other Hallmark artists and architects took classical art, such an old steel engraving of nude people carrying an offering to the gods, and added hamburgers. They loaded hamburgers onto the people’s backs. The engraving is now called Hamburgers for the Gods.
MacKenzie also does unofficial counseling. He once ran a booth at a trade show to help people brainstorm about creative solutions to their personal and professional dilemmas. He set it up like Lucy’s booth in the Peanuts comic strip, with a little bowl for nickels and a sign reading, “The Doctor Is In.”
He travels almost constantly, performing an exuberant presentation on creativity, service, innovation, identity, and twenty-some other topics. More than 800 people see him do his thing every month. If the managers hoped to weaken his influence, they’ve done just the opposite.
“Gordon’s job . . . is to keep track of new ideas and sort of sense what the spiritual needs of the organization are and address them,” says Robert Kipp, former city manager of Kansas City and Hallmark’s group vice president of corporate services. “Gordon is one of those people who hears a little different drumbeat. He’s better when he’s freed up from the heavy paperwork and routine.”
MacKenzie was hired in 1961 from the Toledo Blade in Ohio, where he worked as an artist and copywriter. Hallmark sent him a drawing test instructing him to illustrate the sentiments expressed on ten cards. MacKenzie did three and returned them to Hallmark with a note that said: “If you can’t tell from three, you can’t tell from ten.” He got the job.
Back then, Hallmark needed no creative troubleshooter. It had Joyce Hall, who juggled both creative and financial aspects of his business deftly. Hall could spot the next craze before anyone else. One story claims his sense for saleability was so keen he made Hallmark employees breed rabbits in the company cellar for months until they produced the perfect bunny for an Easter card. He also had the good sense to recognize that just because he didn’t like something, that didn’t mean it wasn’t art.
MacKenzie was hired for one of the departments Hall disliked: Contemporary Cards, the anti-establishment division. The artists in his department were offbeat and out of control. They played Frisbee at lunch. They ignored social norms. They weren’t into pastels, floral patterns, or italics. They didn’t do mushy cards. They used slang and drew cartoons.
MacKenzie was in the department twenty-some years, working as if in an incubator. The department manager, Bob McCloskey, protected his artists from red tape and politics that had poisoned the enthusiasm of artists in other departments.
“It was like Peter Pan’s retreat,” MacKenzie says with a laugh, a high-pitched guffaw. “I liked the Beetle Bailey aspects of it.”
But by the time MacKenzie started the Humor Workshop in 1984, he knew what everybody else had groused about for years: A war within Hallmark between the artists and the businessmen was escalating.
When Joyce Hall ran things, painters and pencil pushers had only one standard to meet. But after he was no longer in charge, the rules necessarily began to shift. Artists complained that the business side was trying to replace inspiration and creativity with market research and cost-profit formulas. Financial managers argued that the artists seemed to forget that Hallmark Cards Inc. was a business and that business people knew best how to make a profit.
MacKenzie is cautious when he talks about the debate. “It will always be a natural thing to have a tug-of-war between people who long for certainty and people who are driven to create new things.”
He considers himself somewhere in the middle of this controversy, a liaison between the “chaos of creativity and the discipline of business.” He tries to communicate the artists’ views in terms the businessmen can understand.
“There’s a pool of thought that everyone thinks of as ‘okay,’ the consensus reality,” he says in his slight Vancouver accent. “So when I talk about what I talk about, it has to come from within the consensus reality.
I have to introduce it in such a way that is not threatening to the guardians of the consensus reality,” he says, smiling his big smile. He doesn’t want to be smug; but he clearly delights in his ability to speak the guardians’ language while laughing at their rules. The first time he tried it, he was terrified.
That was in 1986, and Gordon MacKenzie had decided to rebel against the creative-leadership conferences Hallmark held twice a year. Each year, they paid some hotshot from outside the company a lot of money to come in and tell Hallmark employees how to be creative. But that year, MacKenzie convinced the conference organizers to let him — a company insider — speak.
He told his audience of about 250 people that he thought no one would listen to him, another Hallmark employee, as well as they would a complete stranger. So he wanted to introduce a different fellow: this speaker had a home in a California houseboat and one on Fifth Avenue in New York; he counted among his friends both poets and financiers. (As MacKenzie spoke about this man, he pulled out an electric razor and shaved off his own beard.)
The speaker, MacKenzie said, also knew actual space travelers who had visited a planet with as many as 1,000 greeting-card companies on it. (MacKenzie pulled on a shirt, coat, and bow tie over his T-shirt and slacks.)
“Would you please welcome Sheldon Watts,” the newly attired MacKenzie said, looking at the back of the room and clapping. Amazingly, the audience also turned to the back of the room and clapped, allowing MacKenzie to duck behind the lectern and pull on a wig, completing the transformation.
MacKenzie, alias Sheldon Watts, launched into a scathing comparison between the hierarchy of Hallmark and a card company from another planet that he called Apple Greetings. He likened Hallmark to a pyramid where the managers sit comfortably in the capstone while the artists and writers toil joylessly in the bowels of the pyramid, the tomb. How different, he said, was the organization on the other planet, which resembled an apple tree — a living organism. The trunk and roots were the managers there, he said, and the artists and writers the fruit of the tree.
One manager later described the presentation as MacKenzie “giving us s— for forty-five minutes but doing it in such a way that we gave him a standing ovation when it was over.”
Don Hall and the rest of the creme de la creme requested a command performance at Hallmark’s inner sanctum. MacKenzie gave more than five repeats of the performance throughout Hallmark. Each time he regrew and shaved his beard.
That same year, toward the end of summer, two amazing things happened. First, Hallmark offered MacKenzie his current job. And second, MacKenzie attended what he thought was going to be a creativity seminar at the Esalen Institute but which turned out to be the epochal beginning of a whole new Gordon MacKenzie.
It didn’t take him long at Esalen, which he describes as a cross between a really neat Bible camp and a healthy hippie commune, to figure out he wasn’t going to learn drawing techniques. He attended sessions where he stared into strangers’ faces, danced in strange configurations, listened to others’ life stories.
He thought about fleeing, but Hallmark had paid for the trip, and he hated to tell them they had wasted their money. So he stuck it out. And he had a revelation during the movement-therapy session.
“I, who had always fancied myself to be really open, spontaneous, and free wasn’t open to it,” he says. “I was covered with a crusty armor like Midwestern sod clay . . . like dirt that’s been rained on and then the sun came out and baked it.”
The first layer of armor came from his childhood in Vancouver, growing up in an unstable, alcoholic home. He always wanted to be an artist but was discouraged because his family said he’d never make a living at it. He rebelled by taking odd jobs and flunking out of engineering school. He left Vancouver but soon discovered that he hadn’t been able to leave his hostility and resentment behind.
“I grew up in a chaotic, dysfunctional family where there were no reference points,” he says. “To survive, it is automatic to develop intuition — also paranoia because everything is a threat.”
Despite his lack of experience, bravado helped him land a job as a newspaper cartoonist in Toledo. Every day he watched the room deodorizer on the wall evaporate. He’d decided that if he could last as long as it did, he would survive. He made it. But it was only survival.
Hallmark provided an escape. At Hallmark he could unleash his pent-up fury in his work. He masked his insecurity behind arrogance. He suspected he was one of the few who really understood Hallmark’s mission as a surrogate communicator.
MacKenzie says that by the time he arrived at Esalen he had successfully jammed all his problems down deep enough inside that he’d convinced himself that they were gone. But everything about Esalen was designed to drag them back out again. He felt the anger and hurt bubbling up like old sewage to the surface.
“I started to rupture,” he says. “What had really happened was I was being forced out of denial.”
He spent the whole evening sitting with a statue of Buddha in the garden, debating whether to divulge all this to the people at Esalen. “I decided to share,” he says, “but the part of me that is the survivor, performer, manipulator was orchestrating the whole thing, planning a performance. Another part of me was looking at me doing this and saying, ‘This is bulls—. All you’re doing is making another lid to put on it.’”
The next day he told his teacher he wanted to talk to the class. He cried and told his life story and the group looked sympathetic. Then he thanked them for listening. Unexpectedly, the instructor asked him to come and lie down in front of her.
“The minute my butt hit the floor,” he says, “I began sobbing like mad. I totally lost it. I’ve never cried so hard.” MacKenzie sobbed so he could hardly breathe, feeling unfathomably empty and alone. But then the people in the group, who had been sitting on the floor, circled him, comforted him. This went on for a long time and MacKenzie remembers thinking, “This is what it feels like to die.” But then the group suddenly, silently, and without prompting, lifted MacKenzie up in the air. An image came into his mind then of a newborn, lifted high and wailing with his face as red and wrinkled as MacKenzie imagined his own face to be. And that thought made him laugh.
When he talks about it now, rocking in a director’s chair in the dark, cluttered little office he calls his room and munching on a peanut butter sandwich (no added salt or sugar), his eyes brim with tears. For 53 years he rejected all emotion. Now he can hardly communicate without intensity of emotion, either laughter or tears.
MacKenzie has returned annually to Esalen, embarked on a search for self, and told his story to everyone. He even invited about twenty friends at Hallmark –including Bob Kipp — to a sack-lunch meeting at which he told the story.
It was partly because of Esalen that MacKenzie decided to take the job as Creative Paradox. Having been healed of a fifty-three-year chip on his shoulder, he wanted to heal other people and saw the new job, with its lack of job description, as a vehicle.
MacKenzie works inside the company, which has a reputation of being stodgy and unrelentingly corporate. But he’s also in increasing demand outside. He gives more than forty presentations a year all over North America, most of them variations of “Two Thin Slices of Infinity,” one of his programs. In his presentation, he shares his slice of infinity-reality with each member of the audience.
He tells stories based on the drawings and words on his poster-size cue cards. Each card has a corresponding number. He introduces himself and then invites the audience to call out the number of any card that snags their interest. Number eleven, for example, has a rough drawing of a chicken on it. It goes with a story about when his father learned you could mesmerize a chicken by forcing its beak down on a chalk line. He subsequently mesmerized the whole henhouse. Corporate culture, structure, and history, MacKenzie says, often force a person’s head down on the line; you owe it to your employer and yourself to escape being mesmerized. MacKenzie plays out all the parts of this story, bending over, chickenlike, to show what someone forced onto the line looks like.
Card number nineteen says merely “close.” Anyone who wants can yell out “nineteen” at any point during the presentation and MacKenzie will give the close of his speech and leave, no questions asked. But if other audience members want more, the one who yells “nineteen” must answer to them.
MacKenzie has also experimented, no doubt because of the success of Sheldon Watts, with donning and shedding clothes during the speech. But now he just shows up in a shirt or T-shirt and jeans before his starched, button-down audiences.
Audiences compare him to a revivalist preacher, an evangelist for creativity and free self-_expression.
“You have a sense of being renewed, excited again,” says Marti Johnson, manager of communications for H&R Block. Johnson has witnessed MacKenzie speak twice. “You think if you’re in a corporation you can’t act different. But he gives a sense of what it’s like to work at Hallmark. You think, ‘If he can do it and be that far out, then maybe so can I.’”
Even people who recoil from MacKenzie’s Abbie Hoffman attire recognize the worth in the substance of his speech. He doesn’t use corporate-speak. He talks in parables.
When he talks about service, for example, he uses a parable of a cruise: “Has anybody here ever been on a cruise? It is as if you had been royalty all your life and you didn’t know it and nobody else knew it and when you stepped on the ship it was as if everybody knew it. They were bringing you everything you wanted, when you wanted it, and even anticipating your needs. It was so wonderful you go home and save as much money as you can as fast as you can so you can go on an even better cruise. And the next cruise is better. It is the pinnacle of your life and you don’t ever expect to match it again. Then, when you’re coming into Miami, the ship’s captain gets over a megaphone and booms, ‘All passengers will dive overboard and swim ashore.’ Disbelief. Finally you recognize that you’re going to have to do it and you jump overboard. For the rest of your life, whenever you tell anyone about that cruise, what will you remember? You will tell them about how you had to swim ashore. The same thing happens when a customer comes into your company. At Crown Center we want to build magic moment after magic moment to a crescendo where you walk out feeling great. If something happens when you’re walking out the door, that’s what you will remember. Everything else will be forgotten.”
Another story he tells is about three golfers — two men and a gorilla. The first man clobbers a tee shot that sails way off to the left. The second man hits a nasty hook to the right. The gorilla steps up to the tee and whacks the ball high and straight, 250 yards down the fairway to within inches of the green. After a few shots, the other golfers have maneuvered their balls near the green. The gorilla steps up, but instead of pitching up to the flag, he hits another rocket, 250 yards toward the next hole. The moral of the story is: If you only have one swing, one approach to problems, you’ll have less success than a more versatile player.
Audience members have raved about his astuteness in business principles. But MacKenzie claims almost complete ignorance about the nuances of business. While Kipp insists MacKenzie understands what it takes to make and market a product and is not ‘just the bearded mystic up on the mountain, the pure aesthete,” MacKenzie shakes his head and holds his hands in supplication when asked about any specific business practice. One Kansas city woman, who saw MacKenzie do his thing at a Washington, D.C., conference for medical marketers, was floored by his intimate knowledge of the health care marketing industry, its issues and attitudes. “He really did his homework,” she claims.
MacKenzie denies it. “It would be ridiculous,” he says, “to go do some research so that I can do an amateurish job of trying to parrot to them what they already know. I don’t know s— about medicine except what I learned when I was a hypochondriac for about six years once and I spent a lot of time in the hospital.”
As far as marketing goes, he says, “If marketing is being able to fantasize my way into the user’s mind, then I know about marketing.
“I think a lot of what I have to share in presentations is generic, common to all human beings. They are the things that we all struggle with and the things that we are battered by. The rest of it comes from the audience.”
The secret to being a creativity doctor, MacKenzie says, lies partly in helping people have the courage to be who they already are instead of who they think the company expects them to be. That’s why he gasps when it’s mentioned that he’s the king.
“Oh, no, not the king. The jester maybe. Kings get assassinated.”
The jester of Hallmark understands the need to play. His office is littered with playfulness: a Mickey Mouse telephone wearing Groucho Marx glasses; sculptures he has made; photographs; mottos — “Courage is moving from a safe place to an unsafe place in order to win a battle.”
He wears a ponytail. He runs around looking for a department that’s on break so he can get a free soda from their machine. He sports a pin he drew that depicts the yin yang of the mind — the creative right brain and pragmatic left — singing in harmony. He makes sure people walk on his right side because a stint in the Canadian Artillery left him almost deaf in his left ear. He forgets people’s names constantly — even people he knows well.
“You couldn’t have a whole Hallmark full of Gordon MacKenzies,” says Kipp with a voice full of tolerance. “That wouldn’t work.
“But I’ve had discussions with Don Hall and Irv Hockaday where they’ve said we have to make sure we always have room in the organization for people who don’t fit the norm. Gordon doesn’t see things the way some business managers do at Hallmark . . . but if he could think that way and be that way, he wouldn’t be the way he is.”