The Wisdom of Fools: ‘Onion’ Co-Founder on How to Succeed By Being Outrageously You

The kinds of things The Onion tended to get attention for were scandals. The brand benefited most from times when governors demanded retractions, or famous folk threatened to sue them out of existence. Those accidents that just came naturally as part of the business of being The Onion did more to promote the brand than anything they did intentionally.

Onion LogoA few weeks ago at MarketingSherpa Summit, I got to hear Scott Dikkers, who co-founded The Onion, speak. In fact, I got to interview him as well — and you should be seeing that video in a few weeks — but he talked about some different things in his keynote that I think every marketer should consider.

Dikkers is a funny guy (who knew?). He built a great, iconic brand that has survived and thrived with the switch to digital.

He also has a strong dislike for “marketing.” In fact, avoiding writing for marketing is a lot of the reason he dove into The Onion.

The Accidental Marketer

Scott Dikkers, Co-Founder, The Onion
Scott Dikkers, Co-Founder, The Onion

It was when The Onion wanted to get a little brand exposure and publicity for itself that Scott really began to see the shortcomings of traditional marketing and PR. Again and again, The Onion tried to promote things they were doing that they thought were special and worthy of attention, only to not get any.

Instead, the kinds of things The Onion tended to get attention for were scandals. The brand benefited most from times when governors demanded retractions, or famous folk threatened to sue them out of existence.

Those accidents that just came naturally as part of the business of being The Onion did more to promote the brand than anything they did intentionally.

They couldn’t catch good publicity, but they couldn’t help stepping in it.

At this point, Dikkers figured out something most PR and marketing folks never do: The press hates writing about press releases, but they love discovering stories.

So, Dikkers said, “We’re going to stop sending out press releases, and we’re going to start doing things that are worthy of press attention.”

But OK, they’re The Onion. They once named Kim Jong-Un the sexiest man alive, and fooled China’s state-run newspaper into running a 55-page photo gallery celebrating it. Ridiculous is their job, and it’s always worthy of press attention. What does that do for you?

After all, your brand (probably) isn’t ridiculous or outrageous, right? This is stuff that happens to other brands.

Not necessarily, according to Dikkers:”What’s your brand? What’s the most outrageous thing you can do that’s within the character of your brand? Play that role to the hilt, and you may never have to do marketing again.”

I love this idea. Every brand has a space where they can go pretty much as outrageously far as they want, because it’s still in-brand. You see brands do it all the time.

So the next time you’re looking to make a splash, take a minute to think about how really far out there can you get, while still staying within the map of your brand? Go do that thing, and it might just be the best marketing you’ll ever do.

Bonus: Building Layers Like The Onion

As a final bonus, Dikkers said three things about team building that I thought were interesting:

  1. “I started by obsessively doing all of this stuff myself, and that created a center of gravity that pulled all these people toward me.”
  2. “We did not search high and low. We just searched low. Drop-outs, shut-ins … These were our A players! This was because they were bitter, they were smart, and they had no prospects in life.”
  3. “Leave people alone and let them do what they are born to do, what they are compelled to do.”

You may not want to limit your hires to just shut-ins, drop-outs and conspiracy theorists, but there’s something to be said for finding people who really seem like they’re meant to do the thing you need done, setting a good example of your own work ethic, and then letting them do what they were made to do.

The ‘Sustainability’ of Giving Back: How Marketers Look After Their Own

Sustainability in business is often referred to as “the triple bottom line”—financial, environmental and social. This past week, I had the opportunity to see firsthand how we—as marketers—address social sustainability, specifically our fostering of human resources and marketing talent. It is a critical need

Sustainability in business is often referred to as “the triple bottom line”—financial, environmental and social.

This past week, I had the opportunity to see firsthand how we—as marketers—address social sustainability, specifically our fostering of human resources and marketing talent. It is a critical need.

First, we had the Marketing EDGE Annual Awards Dinner. Nearly 250 marketing leaders gathered to honor two recipients for Marketing EDGE’s two most prestigious education leadership awards: Michael Becker, co-founder and managing partner North America, mCordis, as the 2014 Edward N. Mayer, Jr. Education Leadership Award honoree; and Google as the 2014 Corporate Leadership Award designate.

Many of the emcees of the evening, uniquely, were alumni of Marketing EDGE programs (Marketing EDGE engages thousands of students and professors every year). Altogether, the evening generated not only hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship monies, but also mini-testimonials from students and young professionals including one individual who confessed he almost became a Eurobond trader until he was engaged in a Marketing EDGE program. He described himself as an “accidental marketer.”

Think about the term, “accidental marketer.” Today’s generation of students and “market-ready” career entrants are increasingly marketing educated, and even direct and interactive marketing educated, armed with internships and professional experiences the moment they reach the marketplace. Marketing EDGE programs alone touched more than 5,000 students last year—and 6,000 are anticipated for 2015. Many are marketing majors, while others are in STEM fields, creative and other disciplines, but with exposure to marketing curricula and some marketing experience.

Compare that to 20—even 10—years ago. This business was built largely by “accidental marketers” who found a home in measurable, accountable direct, interactive and data-driven marketing, and found entrepreneurial opportunities in our field. We did OK, even spectacularly, but our successes have only made the appetite for top talent grow more ravenous. Thus, the more we “give” to marketing education today—in donated time and money, in adjunct teaching, in internships, and in involvement with colleges, universities and “bridges” such as Marketing EDGE—the better chance we have to attract the best and brightest to our field, and to our companies. Giving back pays immediate dividends. (Don’t forget #GivingTuesday is December 2!)

During the Direct Marketing Association 2014 Strategic Summit, we heard from a panel on what it takes to bring along “The Next Generation of Marketing Talent.” Representatives from IBM, Javelin Marketing Group, Marketing EDGE and University of Georgia talked about the need for flexibility, mentoring, culture and social responsibility as motivators to today’s students and career entrants. Young professionals crave guidance, and likewise to understand their role in the big picture of community (in marketing, the business overall, the end-user, the industry, the world). One might say these attributes motivate everyone, but they are particularly important to digital natives and Millennials who want to start their careers as contributors and difference makers. How much better to have these new and young professionals matched with mentors, by default or design, to bring clarity to such contributions.

Which brings me to a third event, the Direct Marketing Club of New York’s 30th Annual Silver Apples Gala, honoring seven individuals (Brian Fetherstonhaugh, chairman & chief executive officer, OgilvyOne Worldwide; Timothy Kennon, president & owner, McVicker & Higginbotham, Inc.; Pamela Maphis Larrick, CEO, Omnicom’s Javelin Marketing Group; Thomas “Tim” Litle, founder & chairman, Litle & Co.; Lon Mandel, president, SMS Marketing Services; Debbie Roth, vice president of sales, Japs-Olson Company; and Dawn Zier, president & chief executive officer, Nutrisystem; and one corporate honoree (Fosina Marketing Group) who have contributed a quarter century (or more) to the direct marketing discipline, through demonstrable professional success, and a giving of time and effort to promote the goals of DMCNY which incorporates education and to foster growth of the field.

All during the evening, honorees recalled having mentors, being mentors to others, and having the clarity of marketing goals and measurement to achieve marketing success. They also spoke of community—where ideas are freely explored and exchanged, the good, the bad and the not-so-pretty (testing and lifelong learning)—as being part of the key to not only professional success, but also a deep sense of personal and professional fulfillment.

We are a community—and one I’m thankful for everyday in my own accidental career. It’s always time to give back and mentor.