You can learn a lot about authenticity from the masters of satire.
Mike McAvoy, President and CEO of satirical news outlet The Onion, was at Cannes Lions on Wednesday, speaking about the company’s successful forays with native advertising. It’s something that many publishers struggle with—how do you keep your editorial credibility when you’re using some of your space for paid brand messaging? The common themes throughout McAvoy’s talk, and what needs to happen between all parties involved, are trust and authenticity.
The Onion has been successful because it knows its audience. There’s a mutual respect between publisher and reader. “Our audience is smart,” McAvoy said. “[The audience] loves our content because it’s genuine.” So when The Onion partners with brands to create native content, the audience’s intelligence must be constantly respected.
However, many brands don’t want to cede any control of their messaging. It’s a natural instinct. But when it comes to native content, it’s a step brands must take. They have to trust that the publisher knows what will resonate with its audience.
“When advertisers trust us and agencies and work together, we’re able to do unbelievable work,” McAvoy said. “The minute there’s a heavy hand into content creation…you start publishing things that don’t really fit with your brand. And that’s the danger that every single publisher faces with sponsored content.”
When brands give up control, they have to accept that the content might not go exactly as they would have planned it. Especially at a comedic outlet like The Onion, the brand has to be willing to be part of the joke, to be knocked down a few pegs.
McAvoy showed a native piece The Onion did with Miller-Coors, a satirical news report based around a crash of the Coors Light party train, which had appeared in many Coors Light ads over the years. Miller-Coors had to be comfortable with being made poked fun at—if The Onion produced something inauthentic to its brand, it would have alienated its readership.
That is something that not all brands might want to do, which is why the partnership between brand and publisher must be a good fit. The publisher must understand the advertising goals of the brand, but the brand must also put trust in the publisher and let them take care of the content. The high-level idea should obviously be shared, but the execution can’t be meddled with.
“When you get down to words, and you get down to sub ideas, you start losing the ability to execute a campaign,” McAvoy said. “And you can’t help but get yourself back into creating a commercial.”