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 Trumping of America 

In September 2015, I predicted Donald Trump would win the White House simply because of his mastery of psychology-based marketing. He did not prove me wrong, for better or worse. While I don’t want to discuss the pros and cons of Trump’s win, I do want to review the lessons his campaign presents to brands when it comes to understanding human psychology and tapping into our emotions, thoughts, behavior, votes and purchases.

Donald TrumpIn September 2015, I predicted Donald Trump would win the White House because of his mastery of psychology-based marketing. He did not prove me wrong, for better or worse.

While I don’t want to discuss the pros and cons of Trump’s win, I do want to review the lessons his campaign presence demonstrated. Successful branding comes with an understanding of human psychology, which enables us to tap into our audience’s emotions, thoughts, behavior, votes and purchases.

I will reiterate Trump’s successful campaign strategies:

“I’m Just Like You”

Trump’s goofy, off-the-cuff persona made him real and approachable. He was not polished, like the politicians he promised to “drain from the swamp.” Instead, he was candid, said things he shouldn’t have, and sniffed and grumbled, like all of us do. He was human.

Follow the Winner

From the beginning of the campaign all of the way to the end, Trump’s stump speeches all followed the same theme: “I’m winning. Here, there and everywhere. And I’m winning bigly.”

Popularity Matters

Life is a popularity contest and any publicity is good publicity. Trump successfully attracted massive amounts of media attention by acting outrageously: People just couldn’t resist talking about it. The media has played along his whole life — even more so during the campaign. His shenanigans stole attention from Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the election, and that was the last nail in her coffin. He had won the media war.

Trump Campaign Conclusion

These tactics all cater to the basic fundamentals of human psychology. The fundamentals are so powerful that they trumped reason and rationality in this election. Hillary’s campaign rationale — Who could vote for a person like him — fell on deaf ears and silent media channels. I’ll explain why, along with some insights on how these principles can apply to your brand positioning.

Beware Publicity Hounds

Two stories about publicity hounds smacked me in the face and got me to wondering what would happen if an employee or associate of mine got into the business of self-promotion for the sake of self-promotion to the detriment of the company or society.

My private electronic archive of news stories contains nearly 50,000 items, indexed and cross-indexed, going back five years when I started my e-zine, BusinessCommon
Sense.com.

The point of the e-zine is to take current news stories and connect dots that trace back to the reader’s business, career and life.

Such was the case today when two stories about publicity hounds smacked me in the face and got me to wondering what would happen if an employee or associate of mine got into the business of self-promotion for the sake of self-promotion to the detriment of the company or society. The two publicity hounds:

Kristin Davis, Candidate for Governor of New York
I first became aware of Eliot Spitzer’s blonde, buxom madam when she was ranked #1 in New York Magazine‘s story titled “The Greatest Tarts in New York History (An Illustrated Guide).”

The lede: “New York’s latest famous tart is most likely destined to be a footnote to the Eliot Spitzer scandal. . .”

Davis is not a footnote. She’s announced for Governor of New York, and somehow I am on her fershlugginer e-mail list, even though I moved out of New York State in 1970.

Today’s press release irritated the hell out of me on two counts:

* Davis “called for the repeal of the pension of any public official who resign their office in disgrace to face legal charges. Davis held a press conference outside former Governor Spitzer’s apartment at 985 Fifth Ave.” The press release continued:

“Why should we pay a billionaire who disgraced his office and his State?” asked Davis who served four months on Rikers Island after being convicted of promoting prostitution and before becoming a women’s rights advocate. Davis did four months in prison while Spitzer was not indicted or charged with a crime.

Suddenly the thing became all about her, rather than saving money for the citizens of New York.

* Re-read the mangled syntax: “. . .called for the repeal of the pension of any public official who resign their office in disgrace to face legal charges.”

-“. . . any public official who resign their office. . .” (should be “resigns”)

-“their office in disgrace” (a single public official does not resign “their” office. It should be “his” office-or “his or her office.” Personally I despise “his or her” and would simply use “from office.”)

Desirée Rogers, White House Social Secretary
The story in today’s New York Times that caught my eye was Peter Baker’s piece titled “Obama Social Secretary Ran Into Sharp Elbows.” It described the internal White House struggles of an unhappy Desirée Rogers, a long-time buddy of the Obamas, who became social secretary, screwed up big time, was fired and whined that her side of the story “had been lost in the swirl of hearings, backbiting and paparazzi-like coverage.”

I knew two prior White House social secretaries: Letitia (Tish) Baldrige (Jacqueline Kennedy) and Mary Jane McCaffrey (Mamie Eisenhower)—both classy, extraordinarily efficient and wonderfully hospitable people who did their jobs to perfection by staying in the background and allowing POTUS and FLOTUS to shine.

I first became aware of Desirée Rogers from the 3,700-word story in the April 30, 2009 issue of the glossy Wall Street Journal magazine, WSJ. How could anyone not be aware of this stunning woman staring out at you from the cover wearing a black designer dress, her ringless left hand placed front and center on her shapely knee and a come-hither look that said, “Hey, guys, I’m not married.”

Rogers positioned herself as “Brand Obama” and hobnobbed in the fashion world, where she was frequently photographed in borrowed outfits and six-figure jewelry.

I was frankly bothered by her. Whatever anybody thinks about this new president and his wife, it cannot be denied that they hit the ground running and are working their butts off, while this smoky bimbo was upstaging them.

When the Obamas threw their first state dinner, Desirée Rogers failed to set up a secure screening operation and attended the affair as a guest.

The eyebrows of TV viewers were raised when a glam couple sashayed hand-in-hand past the assembled press corps—he in de rigueur black tie, she in a stunning diaphanous red and gold sari-like outfit—where they paused for photographs and then beetled off for the pre-dinner reception.

Most of our raised eyebrows were for the drop-dead gorgeous blonde, but the eyebrows of a few media insiders shot up to their hairlines when they recognized Tareq and Michaele Salahi, a couple of crazed publicity hounds and world-class phonies from Virginia horse country.

The following morning, the two people in charge of the affair, Desirée Rogers and Secret Service chief Mark Sullivan, discovered they had been made to look like chumps by an outrageous pair of rapscallions.

Rogers, Sullivan and the Salahis were invited to testify before a House Homeland Security subcommittee. The White House, in violation of its promised transparency, exercised the old separation-of-powers ruse and Rogers failed to show. The Salahis also were no-shows.

That left an abject and humiliated Mark Sullivan to take the fall and be subjected to withering examination by the members of congress. “It’s the Secret Service’s job to take a bullet for the president,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), “but not the president’s staff.”

It was really O.K., the committee was assured by Sullivan, because the couple had passed through a metal scanner that would have detected the presence of non-plastic firearms. “I’m confident that there was no threat to the president,” Sullivan reiterated many times in many ways.

However, the caper had a sinister side when it was pointed out that the couple could have emptied their pockets and purse of anthrax, killing 337 of the most important people in the world—including the president and the next two people in line to succeed him, Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

This would have elevated the president pro tem of the senate, 92-year-old Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, to the presidency of the United States.

Some takeaways to consider:

* Don’t change the subject of a press release and turn it into a vehicle for personal redemption.

* Get someone who knows the English language to go over the spelling, syntax and punctuation of all documents released to the public, so you don’t look like an incompetent jerk.

* If you find publicity hounds on staff that are getting too big for their knickers—and are becoming the face and brand of your company—don’t wait for a screw up or real damage. Assemble a paper trail and can them.