The realest joke in all of marketing came three years ago in the form of an Onion article.
As the entire media industry salivated over sponsored content as the new savior of publishing business models everywhere, The Onion released its Michelangelo: “Sponsored Content Pretty F*cking Awesome.” It revealed the naked absurdity of native advertising in a way that a blog post from Jeff Jarvis or Michael Wolfe never could:
“I would say that I’m happiest when I’m being taken advantage of and duped into reading what is essentially a company’s propaganda disguised as actual editorial content,” said Colorado resident Colin Portman, adding that he wanted to personally thank media publications for regularly including sponsored content in their production schedules. “See, when I’m reading an article and then I have to take a step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, the font, writing style, and overall tone is like the website I typically enjoy, but this is actually an advertisement for a car company,’ I smile and just keep on reading. It’s like a treat.”
After that post was published, however, a funny thing happened: The Onion became one of the industry’s most effective creators of sponsored content. Its in-house agency, Onion Labs, grew quickly, and 90 percent of The Onion’s advertising deals now have a custom content component. That custom content has a reputation for being pretty damn funny—like this absurd video for Allegra that shows a woman petting sponges. While other publishers struggle to effectively present sponsored content to readers, The Onion does it well by making fun of itself, prompting readers with calls-to-action teasers like: “Click on this link and know the rush of being part of journalism’s decay. Brought to you buy Four Loko.” While many media companies are burning through VC cash, The Onion is profitable, largely thanks to its native ad deals.
I recently caught up with Rick Hamann, CCO of The Onion, who’s been helping lead The Onion’s sponsored content efforts since he came to the company in 2016. We discussed how brands can be funny, why so much branded content sucks, and how the rise of platforms like Facebook Instant Articles is changing the native ad model as we know it.
The most impressive thing about The Onion’s native advertising is that you actually get brands to take risks and be funny. Brands are usually adverse to doing anything that falls outside the safe zone. How do you get them to take those risks?
What? Are you kidding? (Laughs.)
Yes, it can be really scary to do any advertising or marketing, and to team up with a publication like The Onion can be even more daunting. We approach it in a way that always best serves the client and their business model. We never go out of our way to humiliate a client or do something that’s going to make them uncomfortable and make their shareholders angry or CMO angry.
We work hand in hand with the marketers to figure out where that line is, and we’ll dance as close to that line as we can.
How much meddling do you allow the brands to have in the campaigns?
It’s really on a case-by-case basis. If a brand really wants to draft off the voice of The Onion and bring something to life that is Onion-branded, we have agreed collectively that there won’t be a lot of input. We definitely make sure the client sees things, and if there are issues from a legal standpoint or jokes that will really get somebody in trouble, we’re fine replacing things.
We also offer ad products that our client can really be involved in. We have things that are still within the comedic sensibilities of The Onion, but not necessarily Onion-branded. We still put a lot of thought and care into them. But because they aren’t Onion-branded, we do have a bit more leeway. As a client, you can have specific messaging or specific ways to shoe a product in there. We have some flexibility.
Do you ever turn brands away?
No. I think brands mostly self-select out. There are occasions where we can’t solve a problem for a brand, and we’ll mutually shake hands and say goodbye. It’s rare, if ever, that we just say no. We’ll always take a call and see if there’s something we can do.
You seem to have found a sweet spot with branded content. Why do you think so much of the branded content out there just sucks?
It’s the same reason the majority of advertising sucks: It’s just really really difficult to do. To make great comedy is incredibly difficult. That’s why The Onion is so adamant and passionate about its process. It’s really fucking tough. It’s really fucking tough to make branded content that’s good. It’s not going to work all the time. I’m not going to claim to understand how other places view branded content, or dissect what makes a bad one. I just do know that it’s really tough. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.
It seems like every time a publisher roles out native advertising, you hear the same promise: “This is going to be just as good as our editorial!” But that’s pretty much never the case. Do you think it’s a false promise?
It’s a noble promise, but whenever an advertiser gets involved, it makes things that much harder. It doesn’t make it impossible. But to create work that really resonates, just by the nature of how difficult advertising it is, and how difficult it is to get people to engage with it, it sets the bar that much higher.
It needs real care and real passion—people within an organization that actually want to do it, to make it work. It’s not everybody’s favorite job, but there are people who come from our editorial staff [for whom] branded content is a significant portion of their day. If it was left with someone who didn’t know what they were doing, it would be terrible.
Do you have staffers work across edit and branded content?
There are people in the edit staff who are in charge of certain parts of the branded content work. Especially things that fall into the voice. They dedicate a percentage of their time to that. A lot of our contributor pool participates in the branded side.
It doesn’t make sense for us to just create one piece of content, cross our fingers, and hope that it does well.
We also have staff whose entire job is branded content work. Depending on the project, there will be a mixture. The team will consist of people who hail from the edit staff and purely from the advertising staff.
I’m seeing a lot more of video native advertising. BuzzFeed has gotten really heavy on this model with the giant fifty-two-thousand square foot Sunset Boulevard studio. The staff is constantly cranking out native video content for brands. Has the mix between text-based native advertising and video native advertising changed for you?
Videos are incredibly important. It’s very important to advertisers. We always want to make sure we’re offering video ways to solve the problem. There’s always going to be a mix of it. In my time here, our video offering has increased.
Are you usually selling it as a package?
That is precisely how we sell. We want to make sure we’re creating the right mix—written, video, and social. Things that are derivative. Just trying to create as many different ways as possible to attack the problem.
Don’t make a commercial.
It doesn’t make sense for us to just create one piece of content, cross our fingers, and hope that it does well. It makes sense for us to create a mixture of content, then see it live in the marketplace, see how it performs, and make adjustments.
With all the new opportunities to publish natively on social channels—Facebook articles, Facebook video, Instagram video, Twitter video—has that changed the way you think about the branded work you do? You can create branded content and not just host it on The Onion, but on all these different places.
That’s a really big part of our plan. It’s always a combination of creating the greatest work in the world, plus being able to distribute it effectively and to as many people as possible. It is a case-by-case basis where we’re trying to figure out the target and where best to reach them.
What are clients usually looking for in terms of returns?
Millions of dollars. I think that’s what they want.
There are different ways to measure success for each campaign. Sometimes it’s brand awareness. Sometimes it’s simply reach. Sometimes it’s being able to expand a campaign. That’s why we gather everyone who touches the branded content work together, every morning at 9:15, and we lay out the business problem for each brand coming to us. We really dig in collectively as a group to solve it.
What advice would you give people who want to make their brand funny?
Don’t make a commercial. The greatest mistake a client can make is wanting to create a traditional 30-second broadcast commercial and try to run it as a piece. That’s really bad.