Manufacturing Amazing: MTV Star Rob Dyrdek Reveals How Brands Can Become ‘Irresistibly Shareable’
The story of Rob Dyrdek goes a little something like this—talented skateboarder quits high school to turn pro at 16, becomes an influential skater and serial entrepreneur, realizes the power of storytelling, and catapults himself into the mainstream as one of the biggest stars in MTV history.
My accidental friendship with Rob began with a “holy shit” moment while sitting on my couch years ago. Like many viewers of his second runaway hit, Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory—which depicts day-to-day life at his 25,000-square-foot super-office and counts as one of MTV’s longest-running and most successful shows—I watched mostly because I thought he was hilarious. But not long into the show’s first season, I began to look past Rob’s antics, like getting attacked by sharks and constructing the world’s largest skateboard, and realized he was a super savvy entrepreneur. He was marketing to the most coveted demographic, 22 minutes of balls-to-the-wall storytelling at a time. What’s more, his legions of 18-to-34 fans had no idea they were being marketed to because he integrated brands so naturally.
I eventually profiled him for Inc., and we became fast friends, collaborating on a number of projects since. What’s so impressive about Rob’s approach to media is that it’s almost Trojan Horse-esque—methodically capture people’s attention with one-of-a-kind narratives that organically weave in marketing messages. Fans love it, and Madison Avenue clamors for it.
In other words, this guy’s been doing branded content since long before the term was en vogue.
Dyrdek Enterprises, which abides by his mantra of “Relentlessly Manufacturing Amazing,” has become a media empire: three MTV shows starring and produced by Rob (Rob & Big, Fantasy Factory, Ridiculousness); new shows created by his production company, Superjacket (Snack-Off); a major broadcast deal with Fox Sports 1 (for his pro skateboarding league, Street League Skateboarding); an animated series on Nicktoons (Wild Grinders, based on his toy line of the same name); viral web videos (Rob famously got a full-back “tattoo” of the Monster Energy logo), and partnerships with Chevy and Kraft (for whom he “kickflips” cars and produces an exclusive online series, respectively). Today, he reaches more than 100 million unique viewers on TV and nearly 30 million more through social media.
Days after he inked a multiyear deal that’s reported to be the biggest in MTV history, I sat down with Rob to discuss death-defying stunts, the reality of reality TV, and what it takes for a brand to become “irresistibly shareable.”
How would you describe your approach to media?
It’s a lot more methodical than in the past. It’s understanding what you’re creating and who you’re creating it for and how and where it’s going to be distributed, regardless of what that is—whether it’s a TV show, social-media post, or website. It’s the first step in creating quality media.
You’ve been doing this for years now, and your instincts seem very natural. How did a skateboarder get good at this?
I think I was always a natural storyteller. Initially, it would be just living life’s adventures and crafting the story of those adventures. But as I evolved and really began to have experience in media, it’s been understanding the power of reach that comes with creating the right story. With the original “Rob & Big” sketch for DC Shoes, rather than creating just a traditional skate video, I told a great story around the idea of having a security guard to help me deal with security guards—that scaled its way into a documentary, which scaled its way into a television show. It comes with understanding what has worked and how. But it still all starts with telling a great story.
So what makes for a good story?
I think the best stories are naturally viral. And by viral, I mean it’s a must-share. Take that DC video. At the time, everybody in the entire sport of skateboarding dealt with security guards every time they skated. So the idea resonated so deeply and personally with everyone inside that market. Ultimately, it became this immense “Did you see that?” It became something to talk about, something to share. When a story is truly great, they call it “irresistibly shareable.”
Anyone can go viral once. How do you replicate that consistently?
There are so many different varieties. For me and how I approach creating content, it’s looking at proven successful styles of stories and giving them a twist. I often like to look at things that have worked, things that have inspired me—and make them my own.
Take something like Ken Block’s “Gymkhana Two” video. Seeing the success he had, I asked myself, “How could I do one with him that was unique, but still had the same broad reach?” So I made an exact mini version of his car. That thing did, like, 14 million views.
For years, your biggest storytelling vehicle has been Fantasy Factory. A lot of people watch you facing down a tiger or jumping a car backwards and think, “Oh, cool.” But there’s a very calculated approach to your “reality.”
I’ve developed what I call a reality sitcom. We’ve created a process and format by which to create ideas inside. It starts first with a big idea. “OK, I’m going to break the world record for jumping a car backwards.” And you have this big Chevy integration deal that will be across multiple platforms—social/viral and big distribution with Viacom by integrating with the TV series. We know the ending is jumping the car backwards and breaking the record.
It’s scripted situational comedy—for me. The difference, what makes it “reality,” is that the cast is reacting to me. They’re reacting to me when I’m practicing and crashing. It’s all real. These guys are in the practice car with me crashing. And, of course, in the end, I really did have to go 50 miles per hour in a car and jump it backwards 90 feet. It’s a real world record that I get to keep.
If you tell a great story with the right branded integration, you never question whether the brand is involved because the brand is essential to getting the story done. Viewers don’t think a brand was just stuck in there. They realize that without that brand this story wouldn’t be possible.
What does “content marketing” mean to you?
I would almost equate it to anything else that’s trendy. It’s a matter of quality. Just because you’re doing it doesn’t mean it’s going to work or that you hired the right person. You can set off to create something “more authentic” or “naturally integrated,” but it’s hit or miss. Without the right people and the right story, it’ll just fall on deaf ears.
What makes for an effective branded campaign, whether it’s a corporate or a personal one?
I create almost all the ideas around my own personal brand, which allows me to live within established brand guidelines. Everything I do is ultimately fun, funny, inspirational, or cool. When it’s at its best, it’s all four. And when it’s absolute magic, there’s a little bit of a twist to it. So, since I’ve kind of established those four key pillars, when I set out to create something, it’s about creating around that naturally. But it’s very easy, even when it’s yourself, to drift out of your own exact rules as a brand.
Where do you think brands go wrong?
If you don’t have sound core values and the mission of your brand established—so that no matter what you create or how you create it, it still ultimately ties back to your mission, your vision, your why—it can very easily and very quickly feel like content to be content. What you’re trying to do gets lost. The great ideas will always connect back to what the brand is about.
You draw millions of viewers on TV and reach millions more online. How do the two platforms compare?
To me, ultimately, the value and advantage of television is the quality of content and the scale of the reach. It’s still very difficult to put 22 minutes of content online. As the screens all sort of merge, that’s certainly changing, with the emergence of, say, Netflix coming in and doing big branded content. Even for me, I’m doing a big scripted show with Xbox. But right now, TV continues to be the premium, broad, mainstream distribution point. It will slowly merge into “it’s just a matter of which screen.” But TV is still king, especially in longform.
So it still helps to have a mainstream partner like MTV?
Without a doubt. These brands have been around for 30 or 40 years. You could almost look at a TV network as a digital network of websites, where if your network is aimed at a specific demo, all of your content is directed at that specific demo. So when they tune in, you’re driving them to your other content, other programming. A network is relentlessly promoting its products through its successful products. It’s a pretty simple, fundamental concept that’s now applied to just about everything.
Brands, digital platforms like Vice and Complex and BuzzFeed, they’re all using the same principles that traditional network television does—creating content for an individual and using all its platforms to drive to other platforms. The same way big companies spin off multiple brands, so that you have Pepsi in Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
It’s great to have a network at your disposal and reach 100-plus million people like you do, but how can a brand—especially a smaller one—grow organically?
It starts with product. I don’t care what it is, it has to be a great product. People often overlook the idea of what they’re creating and who is it for and how is it different and why is it needed. The right ideas, people can find. But the best ideas are the ones that move first, identify a space, identify a consumer inside a space that’s underserved, and make an attempt to redefine that space.
Then, ultimately, at the lowest level, it has to become viral, it has to become irresistibly shareable, so the idea can begin to build it’s own momentum. That’s as hard as it gets, but it’s the easiest way to find success.
How does social media play into this?
Social media is a much more difficult thing to manage and do the right way than most people would think. It’s understanding engagement: Are you putting up stuff that people even care about and engaging with them? Are you telling the right story out there?
I fall victim to this, from a lack of time and resources, where your social has limited consistency and it becomes about driving and promoting different things that you’re working on as a brand, as opposed to delivering on a voice and concept about who your brand is and what your brand stands for. Despite that great reach, I’m still not consistently giving people what I stand for and showing them how I personally live it. That’s really important and that’s the reason why random people with amazingly simple ideas can scale in social media with massive followings, because who they are and what they’re creating is, again, irresistibly shareable.
What are your predictions for this space?
Telling great stories, reaching people, and getting people talking is all media is about. Whether it’s a site, social, TV show, movie—it’s about how you’re getting to people and how many you’re getting to. Branded content is just advertising evolved, with great storytelling as the principle. But make no mistake—you don’t need to create great branded content if you have an amazingly sound brand with amazing storytelling advertising.
Branded content is just advertising evolved, with great storytelling as the principle.
Look at Old Spice, who, instead of trying to integrate themselves in something, went out to create refreshing content around their brand that is immensely viral and shareable. Dos Equis is another amazing concept that scales way beyond even what the brand is itself. So when it comes to media and reach, the idea and product will always lead the way. You can make a great viral video, but if you’ve got a crappy product, it’ll never work.
Photography by Julian Berman for Contently.
This interview has been edited and condensed.Image by Julian Berman