Fuck Jerry, known for their hilarious memes, was started by NYU student Elliot Tebele in September of 2011. Three years later, Tebele and childhood friend Elie Ballas decided to turn their loyal social following (25 million on Instagram and average monthly reach of 400 million on Facebook) into a media business. Mick Purzycki and James Ryan Ohliger are the most recent additions to the team and have been focused on creating the digital agency arm of the business. The team used social accounts on Tumblr, and then Instagram, to grow Fuck Jerry into a full-fledged agency with a loyal following. And given they have the kind of millennial and Generation Z audience brands would do anything to capture, it’s only natural that many are starting to approach them for their expertise—the first being Burger King in 2014. As the founders have built Jerry Media, they’ve taken on clients such as Absolut, Hallmark and Tinder who all share the same aim of reaching a young, social-savvy customer. We talked to the founders about what it takes to connect with an audience, why most brands fail when trying to address millennials, and how to actually be funny.
V by Viacom: Fuck Jerry is many things: a clothing line, a new board game (What Do You Meme?), various social accounts and now an agency. What is the essence of the brand that cuts across everything you guys do – that allows the brand to flex so seamlessly?
Elie Ballas: The essence of Fuck Jerry is definitely relatability—making people smile and feel good. Not just for us—we extend that feeling to all of the brands that we consult with regarding social media.
V: Why do you think memes are such an effective form of communication?
Elliot Tebele: You have to be really, really pithy and a meme is boiled down to a one or two-second joke.
EB: Memes are also communal. People transfer the same images and it becomes this viral thing that everyone is doing together.
V: That idea of community directly contradicts this issue of meme ownership and curation vs. creation. How do you determine who owns anything on the internet?
EB: The point of a meme is that it is supposed to go viral and just keep appropriating. If you’d like an actual definition of a meme: “a humorous image, video, or piece of text that is copied often with slight variations and is spread rapidly by internet users.”
ET: The definition is basically saying that there shouldn’t be any owner of a meme.
EB: If something goes viral it becomes a shared aspect of culture.
V: Humor is a huge component of what makes Fuck Jerry successful. What is the barometer for funny—is there any science to it, or is it more intuitive?
ET: I kind of know what is going to hit at this point. I know if something is going to appeal to enough people. If it is over played I try to stay away from it.
V: Let’s say you’re at a Fortune 500 company, you’re the head of marketing, and you want to use humor to sell your product. Do you hire young people to help inform that content strategy? Or is it too difficult to do well so you avoid it altogether?
ET: You have to try (or hire us!). Brands will always have sensitivities. Maybe they want to be very politically correct, so the humor has to emerge out of the absurd as opposed to the offensive.
V: When you look at your audience, is there anything that surprises you about their demo?
ET: What is unique about the audience—even if not surprising—is that it’s very diverse. No class of people is above following this account, no matter how crude we get.
V: Who are the coolest people that follow Fuck Jerry?
ET: There are a bunch of celebrities. Justin Bieber is pretty big. A lot of Kardashians. It’s hard to keep up with all of them.
V: Which platform do you see as holding the most potential moving forward?
EB: Since Instagram did the update to have stories, it has the most potential. Instagram use is definitely going to increase. Honestly, I see people spending up to twice as much time in the app compared to last year.
ET: The Snapchat product is amazing and they have such innovative features. Anything from the shared stories to the geofilters to the bitmoji integration to the discover platform with media companies.
V: When Fuck Jerry has a sponsored post, how do you do it without making your audience feel like they are being sold to?
ET: It has to be funny and organic. It requires a lot of back and forth and the brands have to be flexible. The goal is to really promote products and services that we believe in. If we are showing the world something we believe is amazing, that’s not even selling. It’s something we think you should try, or something you should watch because it’s f*cking amazing.
V: What’s next for Fuck Jerry?
ET: We’re talking about doing TV and a book. We’ve been in discussion for this at least six months on both. Regarding our company’s growth, there are two different routes we could take. We could stay lean and hire a team of, say, 10 people for the next couple years. We’re definitely making some good money, but not enough to blow it out of the water. If we were to raise sizable rounds, we would hire a team of, say, 20 people ranging from content creators, video creators, engineers, and designers to build app ideas that we’ve had. Perhaps an app version of What Do You Meme?.
V: Kind of like a content studio?
ET: Exactly, a creative and technical studio. Really, the sky is the limit. I can see both of those growth routes playing out.
V: What is success for you guys? Is it relevance in pop culture?
ET: I think at first it was relevance, but realistically we’ve almost reached a limit of the Americans in our age group.
EB: Whether or not you follow Fuck Jerry, you probably have heard of us if you are between 15 and twenty-something.
ET: I also view legitimacy in the media, advertising and agency world as a barometer of success. I like how most people that follow the account just think that it is an Instagram account that makes them laugh, but I also like it when people know this is a business. I want the media industry to know that this is a full-fledged business: a new way to reach young people. We are finally getting RFPs sent to us for big-budget proposals. We’re not fully there yet, but we’re getting there.
PHOTO CRED: @fuckjerry on Instagram.