In 2011, the shy teenager from the Syrian Jewish neighborhood of Gravesend, Brooklyn, began posting photos of vintage cars on Tumblr, a then-nascent social media platform. Tebele quickly discovered that if he added cheeky tag lines to the photos, his posts performed even better than usual. With the advent of Instagram, and as he contemplated dropping out of college, Tebele launched an account devoted to these so-called "memes"--irreverent, borderline obscene jokes attached to images--calling it "FuckJerry" because Seinfeld happened to be playing in the background that day.
"I've been a hustler my whole life, selling baseball cards and sneakers," says Tebele, 26, speaking from his disheveled headquarters in SoHo, where miscellaneous FuckJerry merchandise clutters corners and dishes pile high in the kitchen sink. "I saw Instagram was a platform where I could hustle too: More followers is potential business."
Tebele has indeed--against the odds, considering his polarizing sense of humor--spawned a profitable company, which now reportedly generates millions of dollars in annual sales through branded content. (A Forbes estimate says the brand was on track to generate $3 million in sales last year, though the company would not confirm the number.) Tebele and his team of 20--including co-founders Elie Ballas, Ben Kaplan, Mick Purzycki, and James Ohliger--also manage an advertising agency, Jerry Media, charging brands including General Mills, Subway, and Express for custom content and account takeovers. Tebele has even done one-off promotional work for celebrities like Justin Bieber.
The team is capitalizing on the rapid rise of social media marketing, particularly on Instagram, where users share an average of 95 million photos and videos per day. Meanwhile, nearly half (48.8 percent) of U.S. brands used Instagram as a marketing tool in 2016--and that number is expected to eclipse 70 percent this year, according to research firm eMarketer. Analysts say that meme makers, in particular, are increasingly attractive partners for more traditional brands. "That kind of humor is just so on target right now," says Erika Stutzman, editorial director at the social media marketing agency Room 214. "There's a fearless quality there, and it always has a really relatable feel."
But these aren't your ordinary advertisements, as FuckJerry isn't an ordinary account. Recent posts have included a screenshot of a sexual text exchange, and a photo of a poster that reads "I love you more than North Koreans are forced to love Kim Jung Un."
Notably, FuckJerry's regular content is not always original. Tebele does what he calls "curating," meaning he'll repost content from other social media users, and credit them in the comments section of the app. (If someone is peeved, Tebele says he'll take the content down, though he insists that hasn't happened in the history of the company.)
The team mixes general posts with branded content, denoting the latter with the hashtag #ad, or as a paid partnership in the geo-location bar. A 2015 collaboration with Vogue, for instance, yielded a picture of a puppy wearing sunglasses with the fashion publication's moniker, and the tag line: "When you hungover AF and start regretting that text."
While some brands might object to Tebele's sense of humor--it's not for the conservative Chick-fil-A's of the world, he explains--the promotional muscle of 12.5 million followers is enticing. And as brands increasingly rely on social media to market services and products, influencers like FuckJerry can often command tens of thousands of dollars for a single post, delivering measurable results to their clients.
A typical client--say, a hip, Millennial-focused startup or a booze purveyor--will give the Jerry Media team some parameters (i.e., "tasteful swearing only"), and Tebele will go from there, charging that client per impression. Recently, the company began working with HBO to help promote its new season of the hit series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Although the company would not disclose its current fees, co-founder Kaplan says they're in line with what a standard social media marketing agency would charge. And for context, Tebele's first-ever piece of sponsored content--a partnership with Burger King in 2014--grossed $3,000, back when FuckJerry counted a meager 1.5 million followers.
Tebele is now also shepherding an expansion into comedic consumer products. In addition to clothes and merchandise--such as a "Deadass" T-shirt ($32) and "Blow me" tissues ($3)--FuckJerry sells a party card game called "What Do You Meme?" Tebele raised $230,000 via Kickstarter last year to fund an initial production round, ultimately reinvesting those sales to make more games. The lack of overhead, coupled with the team's media savvy, means that this arm of the company has been profitable since day one, Kaplan explains. The card game, which costs $29.99, is currently the ninth-most-popular game on Amazon, coming in just behind Cards Against Humanity.
To be sure, Tebele isn't the only player in the game, and he's largely banking on a type of humor that, as one critic puts it, "is charmingly moronic by its very architecture." Instagram influencer Josh Ostrovsky, also known as the Fat Jew, similarly lends his social media prowess to third-party brands and runs a wine label. Meanwhile, YouTube celebrities Michelle Phan and Casey Neistat have each parlayed their social media fame into businesses, of which Neistat's recently sold to CNN for $25 million.
Yet Tebele says he may have an advantage, inasmuch as he's personally tried to stay out of the limelight. Unlike other famous-for-being-famous types, Tebele comes from more humble origins--he wound up dropping out of college, and worked for his brother's wholesale cell-phone business before branching out. In an effort to diversify, he's also begun experimenting with a non-satirical Instagram account called Jerry News, which pushes out one piece of breaking news daily. He stresses that FuckJerry is about a comedic style, not himself. "If Kim Kardashian were promoting fantasy football, it would feel [unnatural]," co-founder Kaplan says. "Because we're constantly surfacing funny stuff from around the internet, it's not unnatural to post something about different brands."
Time will tell whether FuckJerry's commitment to irreverent memes will be enough to sustain its core business over time. But given that each post presently garners some eight million impressions on social media, according to the creators, it's safe to say you may be seeing more of it.