For two years, Toy New York and EVB worked to build a runaway viral hit for OfficeMax around "Elf Yourself," a microsite that let users put photos of themselves, family and friends on dancing elves. Last holiday season the initiative drew 193 million visitors; the previous year, 36 million. By any measure, "Elf Yourself" was a smashing success and an example of how brands can create their own media.
Yet OfficeMax decided this year to dump Toy and EVB to collaborate with comedy site JibJab to create a new version. OfficeMax painted the choice as broadening the Elf franchise with new capabilities from a media entity with viral expertise and technology. One extra benefit: JibJab offered to do it for free.
The decision points to the risks for agencies that create media properties for brands. Once they do so, they're at risk of getting dumped since the franchises have built-in followings. In the case of "Elf Yourself," contract language that would have given Toy rights was cut out, according to sources.
"Toy is the creator of the Elf," said Bob Thacker, svp of marketing at OfficeMax. "It was [Toy founding partner] Ari Merkin's child. EVB was the one who launched it mechanically. Since the production was already created, we didn't need Toy to re-create it. JibJab gave us the ability to expand it."
JibJab's tweaks include both capacity and stylistic changes. Users can now upload an extra photo onto the dancing elves. They can also save their creations through accounts. JibJab has added more scenes, too: visitors can create disco, jazz and country elves. There is also merchandising via the sale of the created images available on mugs, cards and other paraphernalia.
"The technology platform is definitely more sophisticated," said JibJab CEO Gregg Spiridellis. "But the beautiful simplicity of the product has been maintained."
For their part, Toy and EVB say OfficeMax's decision was disappointing but not wholly surprising. OfficeMax is in the midst of financial troubles. Last Friday, the Naperville, Ill.-based company said it would cut 245 jobs as the tough economic climate curtails spending on office supplies.
It is also, in many ways, just the way things are done nowadays, particularly as clients look to cut marketing costs.
"Are we reaping the financial rewards? No, but we're thrilled to have created the original equity," said Anne Bologna, CEO of Toy, which remains on the OfficeMax roster. The client is not running ads to promote "Elf Yourself."
EVB, which built the "Elf Yourself" application the past two years, has gained clients through the work, said Daniel Stein, the shop's CEO. It saw success with a similar, upload-your-photo viral campaign for Kodak and another ongoing push for Sephora.
"This is the way this world works," Stein said. "If Staples came to us and wanted to do a big campaign this year, we'd do it. We don't have any longstanding relationship with OfficeMax. It was a project that turned into a franchise."
Spiridellis cold-called OfficeMax last February to explore the potential of linking up since JibJab has its own "Starring You" series of user-created videos. While a media property in its own right, JibJab treated the OfficeMax franchise not as an advertiser but a fellow content producer and audience aggregator, said Spiridellis.
"It's a co-production partnership," he said. "We're not an agency. OfficeMax was contributing their valuable 'Elf Yourself' intellectual property."
OfficeMax plans to measure the success of this year's promotion based on brand metrics. Last year, according to the company, 40 percent of those who created elves associated the experience with OfficeMax. More than 30 percent said it made them more likely to shop there.
"We're ahead of where we were last year at this point," said Thacker. "There's built-in momentum behind the elf. It's become a cyber Rudolph."