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The Onion’s Custom Content Agency Makes Brands Seriously Funny

the-onion-cco-coverThe Onion, a satirical paper famous for headlines like “I’m Like a Chocoholic, But for Booze” now helps brands create funny content. We interviewed its president, Mike McAvoy, about The Onion’s custom content agency, Onion Labs.

What is Onion Labs?

Founded two years ago, Onion Labs helps brands create funny content, then distributes it through The Onion’s website and social engines. Like many other publishers (The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times included), The Onion founded Onion Labs to offer something beyond traditional advertising. Publisher-owned content studios offer a chance to access both the editorial expertise and distribution reach of niche-media companies.

Since inception, Onion Labs has become a powerhouse for The Onion, now accounting for 80 percent of the publisher’s revenues. And more recently, Onion Labs has created different offerings – from Onion-inspired social media marketing and events to launches of new satire websites sponsored by a single advertiser.

CCO: How did your team initially react to the idea of Onion Labs?

McAvoy: The editorial teams were supportive; they said essentially, “If we were going to be producing native advertising content, we need to make sure it doesn’t suck.” When we launched two years ago, The Onion’s editorial teams produced a lot of the campaigns we created.

About a year ago, we decided to really focus on growing Labs and brought in a team of traditional agency folks led by Rick Hamann (previously Senior Vice President at Energy BBDO). It was a turning point … a moment when we really began to capitalize on what Labs was meant to be, which was to create branded content worthy of The Onion name. We did it by engaging all of our writing talent, but also by allowing ideas to be shaped by the experience of those who’ve worked for Fortune 500 brands on the agency side.

CCO: Are you mostly hired by brands or agencies?

McAvoy: This year we’ll be about 50/50. On the agency side, it’s mostly media agencies, but also some creative agencies and PR agencies. We’re finding more and more brands are looking to team up with publishers directly – specifically publishers that have the experience and capabilities to understand what the brand is trying to do, which is something we’ve built out by hiring those traditional marketers.

CCO: Do you ever arrive at meetings with brands and they aren’t mentally ready to be “Onionized”?

McAvoy: Once in a while … but usually (and this has changed a lot over the last few years) brands understand the need to be in on the joke or the need to use different marketing tactics to reach millennials. And Onion Labs really won’t work for a brand unless they take themselves less seriously.

CCO: Do brands see these collaborations with The Onion as one-off, funny projects or something they are committed to over the longer term?

McAvoy: When Labs began it was very project-based and the majority of deals came from agencies. Now brands work with The Onion directly because they want to have a longer-term partner and they want a creative strategy that fixes a business problem. The strategy usually seeks out humor, but we also create other types of content for brands through sites like The A.V. Club (which is dedicated to pop culture).

Publishers have huge distribution networks, which is a big advantage in the content-driven landscape today. We have 12 million social followers at The Onion – and that’s part of the offering at Onion Labs.

CCO: On a website, it’s easy to see when content is branded. Do you run into any problems through your social accounts where it may be more difficult to distinguish? Your readers, after all, are probably about as cynical as they come.

McAvoy: Yeah, they are cynical. Our premise is: Whether it’s on site or social, you need to train your audience and not trick them. We’ve worked 26 years to build trust with our audience and we never want to throw that away by tricking someone into consuming content they didn’t think was branded. We make sure that through all the social promotions, as well as the on-site content, we’re contextualizing it and showing it’s sponsored.

What we’ve found is that as long as you’re playing to your strengths (in our case, humor), an audience understands why you’re creating content for a brand.

In the lab

Onion Labs creates native ads for brands to get across their messages. Then the publisher uses its social media muscle to ensure the content is seen by its massive 12 million-strong social media followers.

Onion Labs helped Lenovo create an original web series called Tough Season – which we can only describe as a strangely engrossing fantasy football mockumentary. In the proud tradition of The Onion, Lenovo is more often the butt of the joke than not. To give it juice, Onion Labs promotes the series through its websites and social channels.

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YouTube turned to Onion Labs for its April Fools’ joke in 2013 and 2014 – even though most are unaware of The Onion’s involvement. “We’re behind the scenes,” says McAvoy. “But if you watch the videos, you’ll notice they have the sensibility of The Onion.”

The Onion launched a site last year called Clickhole – a partnership among The Onion, agency Carmichael Lynch, and the brand Jack Link’s. A variant of the usual sponsored-content model, Jack Link’s (the beef jerky folks) was the sole sponsor for Clickhole at launch. The site traded heavily on The Onion’s name to build an audience and ran native ads for Jack Link’s. After three-and-a-half months, Clickhole became self-sustaining and opened up to other native advertisers.

clickhole-example 2

Says McAvoy, “Clickhole has been wildly successful. In 2015, we’re going to do more of the same … Not three more Clickholes but taking ideas that our team is excited about and finding advertisers to support them. That’s where we think there’s a unique opportunity to serve our audience and our advertisers.”

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute