Elves teach agencies the true meaning of creativity.

OK, now that Thanksgiving is over it is officially holiday season. And what does that mean for most of us? That's right time to Elf ourselve...

30 Nov 2009 2496 Views

The Elf Yourself phenomenon and what it means to marketers

OK, now that Thanksgiving is over it is officially holiday season. And what does that mean for most of us? That’s right time to Elf ourselves again.

“Elf Yourself” was launched in 2006 by the US office supplies store OfficeMax.  Elf Yourself was a holiday promotional campaign conceived by Office Max’s ad agency Toy NY and created by digital content marketing firm, EVB San Francisco. Basically, you upload pictures, usually of yourself, friends family or pets. Then the site inserts your face onto the bodies of dancing elves.  I think the way this asset has been managed by Office Max over the past 4 years provides insights into the changing nature of marketing in the digital age and the new expectations it places on ad agencies.

Send your own ElfYourself eCards

When it was launched in 2006, Elf Yourself gained 11 million visitors. Not a bad start. In 2007 the goal was to reach 20 million. That year the site had 193 million visitors over the Holidays who created 123 million cards. Nielsen Online estimated that 1 in 10 Americans used the site and millions more received the greetings. In addition it was picked up by all the major media generating millions more in free publicity. All for an investment in 2007 of “somewhere under $500,000” US according to Bob Thacker who was the OfficeMax Sr. Marketing Executive.

After its 2007 performance, “Elf Yourself” had become a bona fide internet sensation. So much so that it was reported that Toy and EVB were having a quarrel about who deserved the bragging rites to Elf Yourself.

Undoubtedly Toy and EVB had created a very amusing and popular online application. But one could reasonably question just how much all that Elf madness was benefiting OfficMax’s business. After all, many of my friends who had Elfed themselves could not recall which brand was even behind the site. As I saw it, Toy had cracked the amusement part of the equation with a clever concept and great programming from EVB. But it seemed like the concept could have benefited from a little more creativity when it came to developing the business value for Office Max. Evidently OfficeMax felt the same.

While Toy and EVB were arguing over who deserved the credit, Greg Spiridellis, CEO of JibJab Media took note of the concept’s wild success and cold-called Thacker at OfficeMax. JibJab is a Santa Monica CA-based company that offer a variety of “Starring You Media” (SYM) on their website. Spiridellis made a very creative business proposition. He offered to create and host the Elf Yourself site for free. And instead of one elf dance Spiridellis offered Thacker three. But the real coup came when he introduced the idea of giving users the option of downloading their video for around $5 or to buy mugs, mouse pads, ornaments and other merchandise with their elf-persona.  In return, JibJab would get massive brand exposure strengthening their position in SYM and take a cut of all merchandise sales. Win-win.



So Thacker had a choice. Pay around a half million for a phenomenally successful campaign or pay nothing for the same campaign and in return generate revenue from it. That year Elf Yourself was swiftly moved to JibJab where it remains today. They have recently launched the 2009 campaign here.

I give Toy a lot of credit for the idea and EVB credit for brilliant execution, but I wish they had followed through with a monetized win-win solution that would have allowed them to retain their creation and continue to profit from it. Admittedly that type of solution may not have been obvious back in 2006. But by 2007, 10% of the US population was on the website. That changed the playing field and created all sorts of new ways to generate greater business value for the client and the agency. Unfortunately for Toy and EVB, JibJab was first to see this and won the business.

For decades ad agency creativity has been assessed on their ability to deliver entertainment value.   Today that’s not enough. For an ad agency to remain competitive in 2010 and beyond it will need to be equally creative at delivering business value. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go order my “Elf Yourself” christmas ornaments.

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Sean Duffy | @brandranter
Speaker, consultant & founder of Duffy Agency, the flipped digital agency that provides accelerated growth to aspiring international brands.