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.