At the start of 2019, it looked like then 27-year-old Elliot Tebele was on his way to becoming the Rupert Murdoch of social media. His influential comedy Instagram account F*ckJerry, which had over 14 million followers, was charging around $50,000 a post. F*ckJerry and Jerry Media,Tebele’s marketing agency, scored deals with 50-plus clients, companies like Subway, Express and General Mills, attracting some 40 million people a day, according to Tebele. Meanwhile, he was making a lucrative jump from the virtual world to the real world, using his marketing might to hawk his adult card game What Do You Meme, an Amazon top seller that has likely raked in tens of millions of dollars in sales. And in 2018 he had launched his own drink—JaJa tequila—which is nationally distributed.
“Being entrepreneurial, I like to have my hands in different things,” Tebele told Forbes in March, sitting under a disco ball Jerry Media’s office in New York City’s Soho neighborhood.
The next step was Hollywood, expanding his brand from smartphone screen to TV screen as a producer of Netflix’s anticipated documentary on the Fyre Festival—a star-crossed music event for which Jerry Media had run social media marketing.
Exclusive, expensive and over-the-top, Fyre promised two weekends of supermodels like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner and musical talent like Major Lazer, Disclosure and Blink-182, all on a private Bahamian island stocked with yachts, Stephen Starr cooking and luxury tents. In reality, the festival was music-less and Jenner-less, FEMA tents replaced villas, and the gourmet meal was a wet cheese sandwich. Days in, Fyre shut down the festival. Ticketholders, who had reportedly spent $500 to $250,000 to attend, were stranded. Investors lost more than $26 million, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “We saw the film as this really cool opportunity to turn a negative into a positive,” says Tebele, who stopped speaking to Forbes in April. “We lost a ton of money on the Festival. We never got paid for the work that we did.”
The Fyre Festival was a cultural debacle so large that it spawned two major documentary films—both released the week of January 14,2019. Netflix streamed the Tebele-produced film Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, a schadenfreude-fest about the misadventures of Fyre Festival cofounder Billy McFarland (now serving a six-year prison sentence for multiple fraudulent schemes and facing a $100 million class action suit by attendees). Meanwhile rival media service Hulu offered Fyre Fraud, a darker look at the event that cast Jerry Media as McFarland’s accomplice and propagandist.
The Fyre documentaries sparked a massive backlash. F*ckJerry, which had gained Instagram popularity by publishing humorous posts, often without permission or credit of the content creators, had a growing roster of enemies who saw Tebele as a thief who cashed in on others’ work. Criticism crystallized once the world learned that Tebele, as producer of the Netflix doc, was possibly trying to make light of the disaster Jerry Media had worked hard to promote. In the weeks following the docs’ debut, Megh Wright, New York magazine’s comedy editor, launched a Twitter campaign urging people to unfollow the F*ckJerry Instagram account on ethical grounds. Dubbed F*ckF*ckJerry, it quickly inspired comedians Amy Schumer, John Mulaney and Colin Hanks and 300,000 others to unfollow F*ckJerry.
“Influencer marketing was really not a thing at the time, but having your own following
— I thought it’s gotta lead somewhere.”
The campaign made national headlines. Tebele’s sponsored Instagram business suffered. Brands fled. Clients like Comedy Central and Bumble confirmed they had terminated their contracts.
Tebele offered an apology and an excuse and altered his publishing policy to mandate consent and give credit to authors on February 2, 2019. “F*ckJerry’s always adhered to the social norms of the internet,” Tebele told Forbes. “It was the Wild West.”
While social media may no longer be the Wild West, it’s in the middle of an influencer gold rush. With more than 3 billion active smartphones (on which users spend an average of roughly 3.5 hours a day), more content is being consumed on phones than on any other medium. Instagram alone has more than 1 billion monthly users. Brands are projected to spend nearly $6.5 billion on Instagram influencers like Tebele in 2019. Celebrities are cashing in: Soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has made upwards of $975,000 for an Instagram post. And celebrities like Selena Gomez have seven-figure deals with brands like Coach for integrated partnerships involving multiple posts. Armed with an iPhone and fewer than ten full-time employees, Kylie Jenner became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire this year by pitching her Kylie Cosmetics directly to her now-148 million Instagram followers.
It’s a trend that Elliot Tebele, a Hunter College dropout with no formal marketing education, helped pioneer as one of Instagram’s earliest influencers. But fortunes can be made—and lost—quickly in the fast and loose world of viral marketing, where originality and ownership are blurred and authenticity is often liquid. Even though Tebele’s Instagram advertising empire has shrunk, it likely doesn’t matter. His games and liquor business show no signs of slowing down.
Tebele grew up the middle child of five kids on the fringes of Coney Island in the Syrian Jewish community of Gravesend, Brooklyn. Obsessed with sneakers, streetwear, pop culture and basketball, Tebele was more interested in making a buck than making honor roll. As a high-schooler at York Prep he flipped vintage sneakers on eBay, and before that he sold custom baseball card decks to classmates.
“For a high school kid, it was decent side money,” Tebele says, flanked by his lawyer, publicist and his childhood friend-cum-business partner Elie Ballas in his professionally decorated Soho headquarters. The brick-walled loft space, which was featured in Architectural Digest in 2018, looks like a modern, minimalist bachelor pad. There’s a sleek, well-stocked bar, blonde-wood bleacher seating, a basketball hoop and artwork by the ’80s pop artist Keith Haring. The word “F*CK,” painted in massive block letters by Brooklyn muralist Dirty Bandits, covers a long wall and serves as a backdrop to employees clacking away on Macs.
Wearing a purple Yankees x MOMA baseball hat, a screen-printed T-shirt from the Chinese designer Yang Li and a gold ring stamped “Collette” (after his daughter), he’s as fashionable as his office. Tall and skinny, Tebele dabbled in modeling. He was under contract with The Lion agency and has donned an oversize suit for Ermenegildo Zenga at Milan Fashion Week and rocked mint cashmere for Rag & Bone’s 2018 spring/summer collection. L’Uomo Vogue photographed him in vintage clown makeup.
Eight years ago, Tebele was neither an internet mogul nor a fashionista. A frustrated 20-year-old college dropout, he commuted to a gig at his brother’s wholesale electronics company in Little Ferry, New Jersey, every day. As a diversion from his dull job, he took to Tumblr, the then-popular microblogging site, to post things he liked: Porsches, pretty girls in 1960s ads and Nikes. He called his page F*ckJerry as an odd homage to Jerry Seinfeld.
After 5,000 Tumblr posts, Tebele moved to Instagram in late 2011. The then-year-old platform was quickly gaining traction as the hot mobile photo-sharing app. “I started posting pictures I thought were cool. I was one of the first people to curate photos on Instagram.” Soon he noticed that funny content (Seinfeld jokes and TV gags) attracted the most engagement. “I’m definitely not a comedian,” Tebele says. “I just like had an eye for certain things. I guess I’m a good curator.”
He certainly wasn’t original. Until February 2019, Tebele’s Instagram account almost solely posted poached content from Twitter, Reddit and Facebook created by comedians, journalists and others without permission, credit or compensation. As a pioneer of memes on Instagram, Tebele would troll for jokes, take a screenshot, often delete the source, add a wry caption and post it on F*ckJerry. This practice seems to have led to no plagiarism suits before 2019. By August 2015 he had 5.7 million followers, making him one of the only non-Hollywood types to gain a serious Instagram following. “Influencer marketing was really not a thing at the time, but having your own following—I thought it’s gotta lead somewhere,” he said.
Somewhere turned out to be a marketing gold mine. Instagram took off—scoring over 10 million users in its first year—with a good number of them following Tebele. In 2014 Tebele quit his job to make F*ckJerry a real business. He enlisted his Brooklyn friend and recent Stanford grad Elie Ballas and built a F*ckJerry website to sell T-shirts. They soon realized they could monetize their following by selling ads that looked similar to the non-sponsored posts on the F*ckJerry Instagram. Tebele and Ballas joined a co-working space in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood to launch FJerry LLC in 2014. His first big client was Burger King, which paid Tebele $3,000 for a post about its new, campy product, Chicken Fries. Others, like dating app Bumble and food giant General Mills, soon followed.
“No one knew Instagram was going to be that big,” says Ballas, 29, who not only grew up with Tebele but shares his height, fashion sense and business ventures. “When we started working together it wasn’t like, ‘Let’s make money and let’s make this a business.’ It was like, ‘Let’s just keep building whatever this thing is.’”
“Imagine getting in at the ground floor of Coachella—that’s how we were envisioning it.”
By 2016 that thing, @F*ckJerry, had attracted millions of followers and had launched other handles to reach new audiences and interests, including @beigecardigan (a women-focused account run by Tebele’s wife, Jessica Anteby Tebele); @pizza (just photos of pizza) and @kanyedoingthings (covering the zany adventures of Kanye West).
If getting cash from brands for one-off posts is good, collecting hefty monthly retainers is even better. In 2015 Tebele partnered with viral video creator JamesRyan Ohliger and former Groupon exec Mick Purzycki to launch social media marketing agency Jerry Media. The new company created ads and played matchmaker between traditional brands and the new breed of viral influencers driving attention, and sales, on social media. Clients like Tinder, Comedy Central and clothing retailer Express signed on.
Later that year Tebele embedded his original idea in the growing Jerry Media empire—using his powerful social marketing influence to peddle his own merch. First came games. Jerry Media salesman Ben Kaplan, 27, had recently met with Kickstarter and learned that party games were getting lots of backers. Kaplan created What Do You Meme, which was basically the F*ckJerry Instagram account in analog, where players match captions to famous internet memes and vote on the funniest combo. By the end of 2018, What Do You Meme was one of Amazon’s bestselling games. Kaplan boasted on Instagram that Jerry Media has produced some 5 million packs. Based on those numbers, lifetime revenues have hit at least $50 million, and likely much more.
In 2018, Tebele launched a new business venture, JaJa tequila, cofounded with his brother Maurice Tebele (who was running the wholesale electronics business) and his friend Martin Hoffstein. Wrapped in pastel packaging and pushed partially via memes, JaJa (pronounced ha-ha) is a premium tequila targeting generation Instagram. In about a year, they completed a small funding round with 22 investors, some of whom, with skin in the game, have contributed to the nearly 700 JaJa-tagged Instagram posts. JaJa hit national distribution. His other project, the jet-set music event Fyre Festival, would nearly tear his empire apart.
In late 2016 Jerry Media scored a dream contract—a promise of $200,000-plus to run the social media for the Fyre Festival, a lavish music bash to be held on a private island in the Bahamas cofounded by credit card entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule. “Imagine getting in at the ground floor of Coachella—that’s how we were envisioning it,” Tebele said.
To make a splash, Jerry Media, led by then-creative director Oren Aks, helped coordinate supermodel influencers (Kendall Jenner, Hailey Bieber, Emily Ratajkowski and others) to simultaneously pitch the event by posting a simple orange square with the hashtag #fyrefestival. It reached more than 300 million people.
Selling tickets was the easy part. Fyre’s slick viral marketing masked a logistics nightmare. With an overwhelmed staff, a remote location and a budget spent on influencer endorsements rather than working infrastructure, then-25-year-old McFarland couldn’t deliver the festival he sold. To shield the unglamorous reality from the public and ticketholders, Fyre chief marketing officer Grant Margolin ordered Jerry Media to hide all negative comments using keyword filtering, according to Aks.
Problems compounded. On April 28, 2017, customers arrived on Great Exuma, an island in the Bahamas, and found that the advertised glamorous accommodations, gourmet food and A-list acts had been replaced with emergency tents left over from Hurricane Matthew, sad sandwiches and no musicians, as they dropped out due to concerns about the festival’s organization. Worse, there was no getting off the island, with too few planes to accommodate the mob of guests who wanted to flee the event. Attendees, lured to Fyre by social marketing, now took to social media to rant, complain and beg for help. The failed festival has been top news around the globe, with over 2.5 million posts in English mentioning it—81 by the New York Times alone.
For his role in the festival scam, cofounder Billy McFarland was handed a six-year federal prison sentence for wire and bank fraud. He owes over $26 million in restitution to investors and faces a $100 million fraud class action lawsuit from festival attendees. Until recently, McFarland was being held in a medium-security prison in rural New York alongside former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. He now resides in low-security confinement in eastern Ohio.
Tebele and Jerry Media, meanwhile, resumed business as usual—that is, until the Netflix and Hulu Fyre documentaries aired in January 2019. “Everyone thinks we are this mastermind media marketing company that created the entire façade of this festival intentionally, knowing that it was going to be a fraud,” said Tebele in March. “In reality, we were hired to do creative content for their social feed. We had no idea what was going on in the Bahamas,” he explained, stressing that five other marketing firms were hired as well and that Fyre never fully compensated Jerry Media for their work.
Tebele claimed they hadn’t realized Fyre was going to be a disaster until the team arrived on the island on the festival’s first day. Oren Aks, the Jerry Media lead, who agrees with Tebele’s sentiment, says that around early 2017 he started getting daily emails and texts from Fyre’s CMO Margolin and Jerry Media’s CEO ordering him to delete negative comments about the upcoming event on social platforms. Forbes was unable to reach Margolin for comment.
At first, no one seemed to care about Jerry Media’s role in the Festival—except Netflix. The streaming giant approached Jerry Media to use video that Jerry Media’s chief content officer, JamesRyan Ohliger (who is known on social media as Krispyshorts), had shot in the Bahamas for his four-part Fyre YouTube series. Seeing an opportunity to reshape their role in Fyre, they negotiated a deal to provide footage if Jerry Media could help produce the doc. Tebele and Ohliger received executive producer credits.
After watching the Fyre documentaries, Megh Wright, the New York magazine comedy editor, could no longer ignore F* ckJerry. As the editor of comedy site Splitsider, Wright knew of Tebele’s alleged history of stealing comedians’ jokes for his Instagram feed and dug deeper into the accounts run by Tebele. Soon she found a joke, originally written by comedian Alyssa Limperis, being used to sell Tebele’s JaJa brand. “They would post other people’s Tweets in an Instagram post and then use the caption to advertise their tequila,” Wright told Forbes. “I knew they weren’t paying people like [Limperis] to use those Tweets.” Tebele denies ever using others’ content without consent in ads.
Wright took to Twitter, calling users to unfollow F*ckJerry. She named the campaign #F*ckF*ckjerry and wrote about it on New York’s Vulture.com to build momentum. Comedians like John Mulaney, Amy Schumer and Colin Hanks rallied—posting about Tebele’s history of plagiarizing content.
Some 300,000 people unfollowed F*ckJerry. Wright alleges that Tebele deleted more than 260 posts in response. Before the #F*ckF*ckJerry campaign, Tebele would respond to people asking him to credit their jokes by calling them names like “virgin nerd” or outright blocking or ignoring them. Tebele could ignore the requests no longer. To calm critics, Tebele penned an apology and announced via Medium that F*ckJerry would no longer post other people’s work without crediting the creator and obtaining their consent.
“I know I’ve made enemies over the years for using content and not giving proper credit and attribution to its creators. In the early days of FuckJerry, there were not well-established norms for reposting and crediting other users’ content, especially in meme culture. Instagram was still a new medium at the time, and I simply didn’t give any thought to the idea that reposting content could be damaging in any way,” Tebele wrote.
Since the documentaries debuted in January, F*ckJerry has put up significantly fewer sponsored posts from significantly smaller companies—and is giving consent and credit to content creators. Still, former customers General Mills, Hinge, Bumble and Comedy Central confirmed they no longer work with Jerry Media. Jerry Media has subsequently been sued four times for copyright infringement by content creators, three of whom allege their footage was used in the Netflix Fyre documentary without their permission. One of these cases was settled, the remaining three are ongoing. A lawyer for Jerry Media and Netflix declined to comment.
While many in the media business today complain of fleeting news cycles and split-second attention spans, the current ephemeral environment seems to have worked in Tebele’s favor. What months ago looked like a career-ending scandal now appears to be little more than a blip in Tebele’s business. Today his brand is on the rise.
F*ckJerry’s follower count on Instagram has rebounded to its pre-F*ckF*ckJerry level of 14.4 million. And now, F*ckJerry, by obtaining consent from creators and tagging them in all FuckJerry content, offers followers a guilt-free experience. Though Tebele seems to have largely pivoted from obtaining sponsored content for F*ckJerry, he’s gone from client to customer, paying other meme accounts, like GrapeJuiceBoys and FriendofBae, to promote his games in clearly marked ads.
There’s a lot to advertise. In the past six months it appears that Tebele has released several new games and expansion packs, including a new drinking game called Buzzed and a text message-inspired one called New Phone, Who Dis, which tops Amazon’s bestselling card games chart.
And last year’s Fyre burn hasn’t scared Tebele away from massive music festivals and supermodel influencers. On April 23, celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Cardi B and Olivia Culpo posted from Coachella’s trendiest and most exclusive party, Revolve Festival, as they watched acts like SZA, Tyga and 2 Chainz and attendees sip the event’s official tequila—JaJa.
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