Listen to: La Cebolla: Peeling Back The Layers on Univision's Purchase of The Onion

While it might seem surprising, Univision’s recent partial purchase of The Onion isn’t quite so unexpected, according to former Onion video director JJ Shebesta, who joined Dave Donars, Cardwell Beach chief of research, to talk about the deal. In this first part of the conversation, JJ and Dave dive into The Onion’s legendary independent streak, potential suitors for the newspaper before Univision, and “the constraints of the small.”

Podcast Transcription

Matt Hansen: Thank you for listening, Welcome to Air Quotes, the podcast about invisible marketing. Air Quotes is the flag ship podcast of the Cardwell Beach network. This is our weekly conversation about media, technology, business, publishing and marketing, My name is Matt Hansen.
Dave Donars: My name is Dave Donars. I’m the chief of research at Cardwell Beach.
Matt Hansen: Any thoughts about last week’s episode this episode or anything whatso ever, email us at airquotes@cardwellbeach.com or tweet us at cardwellbeach.
Dave Donars: Today we’re going to discuss Univision’s recent 40% purchase of The Onion for $20,000,000 and with us today we have JJ Shebesta who is a long time friend of mine. Let that just be known first of all but more importantly he has real insights into this topic.
JJ Shebesta: My name is JJ Shebesta, I am a writer and director and I was the director of Onion Video up until November of 2014.
Dave: First thing I want to ask you, JJ, is, tell us every dirty secret you know about The Onion. Everything.
JJ: Yeah. I’ve got no dirty secrets.
Dave: No I think the first real thing is to talk about your time there and just how was being a truly independent organization without some type of corporate overlord and how that was for you guys day to day because you were fairly high up, you were in a lot of meetings where some of the stuff about.
JJ: It was crazy. It’s one of those things—like that and Saturday Night Live—would’ve been a dream job for me to have and that I got to have it which is pretty incredible.
JJ: That was really rad, creatively and I think there’s a facet of that I believed sincerely in the mission of what it was about. I think The Onion was something comedically that had integrity that was unmatched. A lot of the things that followed in the footsteps of it that had been such game changers like The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, lots of things really were born on the back of The Onion and they would admit that too. A lot of the key people who developed those things came from The Onion and I think The Onion really strove to utilize satire in a smart way like in the tradition of, it sounds so lofty, but honestly in the tradition of Samuel Clemens and Jonathan Swift and all of that stuff. It was about doing something good and that was really awesome to be involved in.
That’s the creative stuff but then certainly there’s also into the furnace of the industry of publishing and in media and ad work and everything like that—all of those things were inherent within that experience too. Like anyone who’s been at the smaller company, there’s good things and bad things about that.
I think the good thing is to really get submerged in experience across the board from technology to the ad side of things, the sales side of things, to business development. You have to step up and be really involved in that and that’s really great experience but on the other end it’s also a lot of f-ing work. It’s like you have to wear a lot of hats in that and that can take its toll on you but also it also can be a challenge sometimes being able to hyper concentrated on the things that you really love or the things you really want to be there for.
I’ve been there for almost a decade then I started working there doing some writing stuff and doing animation and stuff like that. I’m an a animator and a director and an actor and a writer and a lot of different things and I wore a lot of those different hats since I was there.
I started on like that and then I ended up leaving as kind of heading up the evolution of where Onion Video was going. That was a big responsibility for me and I could say this with all confidence that anyone who is there at The Onion really see themselves as sentinels of this thing that is very important and very particular, very singular, very delicate and they try to take great care to not break the thing. That was a really interesting experience too. That’s a summation of my experience. I can elaborate on anything that you would want me too and swear—we can add more swears or more colorful swears.
Dave: We need swears in other languages, that is something that dearly missing this podcast.
JJ: I’m going to get a Google Translator up for a second.
Dave: I think there’s one obvious question to get out of the way which is given your experience with that where you’re talking about having to wear multiple hats and that is such a constraint of the small, right? That is something that all small businesses have to deal with. Do you think that merger makes sense for The Onion given the culture that was there, we’ve spoken about this actually for years. It’s not necessarily in The Onion’s wheelhouse to be the best at payroll or to be the best at various aspects of legal and HR and accounts receivable and to really go in and do those tough sales. Also just in a more general sense about the aspect of how do we get to bundle The Onion sales with some larger entities so that it’s a more attractive ad buy. That’s really tough for small entities to pull off, especially small publishers in this age which is something we’re going to get into. But from your opinion, I want an honest unbiased opinion …
JJ: I wanted to lie. I want to lie about it.
JJ: You’re right. We have talked about this stuff a lot. But I guess my top line appraisal of it is—and this is certainly very much informed from being in the weeds there for a long time—is The Onion is singular in so many ways, I think. In one way in the world of comedy publishing, it’s singular in the sense that it’s not a Funny or Die. It’s not got venture capital from Sequoia. It’s not a College Humor. All these other organizations had the buffer in place of a bigger company or a lot of venture capital and The Onion really has never been in that situation.
For me in one part I think that is a testament to how incredibly hardworking and intelligent the people are there to be able to maintain the integrity and the relevancy of that company while not having the support network that all of its competitors have. It’s also technically unfortunately just the world of modern day publishing and competition with BuzzFeed. It’s in competition with the New York Times in some weird ways with all that stuff.
In one way they had their hand tied behind their back and they had their hand tied behind their back because they couldn’t get the suitors. Many people over the years have been interested in The Onion but there’s a lot of integrity at that company, creatively, certainly but also as much as it would be possible on the business side, it exists there too and I think there’s a great appreciation for the fact you want to align yourself with someone who appreciates and understands what this brand is, what it is, what it isn’t, what it should and what it shouldn’t be—because like any sort of brand you have to grow and you have to evolve to maintain relevancy but also in that growth and everything like that—and you can see it in so many examples, like The New Republic or all other things where it can fundamentally shatter the culture of what a publisher is.
It’s very easy, I think, for people to have huge blind spots about what is this really, what is its audience, what is its mission and I know for a fact, because I’m good friends with everyone still there at that company, is that that was incredibly important of them. To me this seems like there maybe some people looking at this, what is this, how does this make sense? There might be other companies that would make more sense but those other companies might not be looking to shepherd the mission of what The Onion is about in the right direction or be able to fully understand they’re respected. That would be my summation to that.
Jenna Barrott: You’re listening to Air Quotes, the podcast about invisible marketing from the Cardwell Beach Network. My name is Jenna Barrott, account manager at Cardwell Beach. Did you know that Cardwell Beach is actually a beach in Queensland, Australia? We’re also an award winning agency in the heart of Brooklyn. You can hear previous episodes by searching Cardwell Beach on Stitcher. Thank you for listening.
Dave: But let’s just dive in right there. Let’s dive into the culture of it. Can you name a few that outside from a publishing perspective make more sense, is that an HBO, is that some Time Warner entity, is that something owned by Barry Diller, is that something like Cracked? Where do people on the outside think it more makes sense?
JJ: The funny thing is you’re more on the outside than I am. It’ll be very actually to be kind of curious to hear from you guys about who you would see attached to it and you’d be like, “Yeah. That makes sense.” What would makes sense to you guys?
Dave: I think we’ve spoken about this before. I always thought that a good outside buy for it would have been a conglomerate that can own a few of the small shelf things. I honestly think that there’s an opportunity for some conglomerate out there in addition to what like the Univision plan is with the stuff but also to own something within video gaming. Like Nintendo.
JJ: You think Nintendo?
Dave: Honestly, yeah. Nintendo suffers from the same plight of the small that The Onion does. You just think about the entities that Nintendo is up against. It’s Sony which has a massive library of movies and electronics and other entities, Microsoft and Nintendo. These things are multi tentacle beasts and then you’ve got a single player that does one single thing. To me, it’s always been difficult for somebody in this day and age in 2016 to just do one single thing and not be part of some larger portfolio where you can consolidate tool costs, research cost, payroll cost, HR, all of it.
JJ: Absolutely. Did you mention Funny or Die? For some reason this popped up my head. I remember when The Onion first started putting it out there that they were hunting for something like this at the same time Funny or Die did too. I could’ve sworn, I can’t remember who that potential buyer was that there was someone who was thinking about trying to lump them all up which to me seemed crazy and I can’t remember who that was or what that was.
Dave: But you can imagine in that situation versus what happened with Univision that that would have been a dangerous situation for the Onion. There would have been probably some pressure to consolidate voice or lose some steam.
JJ: Absolutely. I think this is true of any industry, you can see this in tech, you can see it in editorial, you can see it in any other kinds of products when you’re trying to do these things and then when you do these things it’s about maximizing efficiency, trying to find those savings and what’s kind of the crossover here, what can we do for you better and what can we bring from your brand that we don’t have or is a big gain on our end.
Within that, I think with any kind of merger, you’re looking at hundreds probably of traps. Hundreds of pitfalls that manifest—the ugliest one being someone just wants to buy your logo, you know what I mean? The whole National Lampoon situation of kind of, okay, you got brand recognition. Let’s just take this logo and slap it on a bunch of stuff that really is a no way representative or a misunderstanding of what this brand really is or what its strength is. That’s the biggest danger with any of those deals but then you can have a variety of other challenges. There’s a million traps.
I think that probably any merger of these things is never, just like anything in life, it’s never a beautiful perfect compromise or collaboration. There’s always elements of compromise and it’ll be curious to see how that shakes out with this one but, yeah, it’s like you really just have to be really mindful of those pitfalls. And to some degree I certainly have never cemented a idea like this on my own or anything like that. It’s like I imagined on some degree you’re really working on intuition and that’s going to be spooky. It’s also roll the dice to some degree.
Dave: We’ve been friends since high school, a long, long time ago, and we are from Wisconsin. Much earlier than I think the national audience caught on with The Onion, it was something that we—even in print form—we’re seeing every week and being blown away by. To me, personally, although I’ve never worked there, I have no vested financial interest in this, there’s a sigh of relief that The Onion finally got bought or at least partially infused with cash. I think Univision does provide a lot of the things that we’ve spoken a lot about. It’s the boring stuff that you don’t want to think about. It’s like security tracking, IT payroll, account receivable, all those type of things that a larger media company which is familiar with the cadence of media, when you actually reconcile, how the bills go out, how they get received like when you have experts in that already doing that could come in and work with your company. I think that that’s extremely beneficial. But also, I’m very glad that it was bought by a media company, it wasn’t bought for too high of a cost and it wasn’t bought by a tech company because I think that those are the three disasters areas of a really substantial brand and maybe I’m over valuing it.
JJ: The tech company thing is really interesting, that’s really interesting, the tech company thing. I think that’s completely valid, all of those points. Because it’s like if you break any of those down, it is interesting to hear your perspective on the tech side because I know there’s been, I have a little bit and I’m going to have to keep vague about it, experiences of potential things like that in the past with The Onion that clearly never happened but it’s like we knew the dangers inherent in that. You’re more immersed in that world than I am.
But in regards to, yeah, a media company, yes. I think like companies like The Onion just look at College Humor, Funny or Die, a lot of places. You have to be like—a crazy thing about publishers now they are and have to be everything, they are editorial organizations, they are ad agencies, they are technology companies, they are, it’s like you can break it down and they are everything. Right now you have people who are scared in the marketing department of big companies and ad houses and how is this going to shake it all up. I think in the end it’s not going to really shake it up as much as people are afraid of. But it is all those things. I feel I got off track.
What was that first? You said money? One was a lot of money. I think if you sell it for a lot of money there’s a lot of anticipation to try to just whore it out is much as humanly possible to make good, like Star Wars, which hopefully ends up rolling out good. But it just kind of like, that’s insane that they got that for a song— in like $14 billion is a song. That’s crazy.
Matt: Thank you for listening to Air Quotes, the podcast about invisible marketing. We’re brought to you by the Cardwell Beach. My name is Matt Hansen, head of content.
JJ: My name is JJ Shebesta. Cardwell Beach snake master.
Dacve: My name is Dave Donars, chief research officer of Cardwell Beach. Please check us on Twitter, iTunes, soundcloud.com/cardwellbeach and you can always e-mail us at airquotes@cardwellbeach.com.
Matt: Please join us next week for the second part of our conversation with JJ Shebesta. Thanks for listening.

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