October 27, 2020

These College Dropouts Have Built A Fast-Growing Business Creating Viral Ads That Look Like Memes

Low-brow jokesters Reid Hailey (left) and Derek Lucas are thriving in an ad apocalypse by making some of the internet’s most widely shared memes for big brands like Bud Light, Netflix and Activision.


When Bud Light wanted to end 2019 with a Christmastime digital ad campaign, the beer giant turned not to Madison Avenue’s mad men but to two 29-year-old dudes in Atlanta: Reid Hailey and Derek Lucas. Their Doing Things Media quietly runs some of Instagram’s most popular meme accounts, like @NoChaser (7.9 million followers), @ShitHeadSteve (6 million) and @AnimalsDoingThings (4.6 million), and they also specialize in creating ads that resemble memes. For Bud Light’s yuletide marketing, they came up with an image of two guys joking about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reinbeer, who turns out to be a crudely Photoshopped Bud Light can with antlers and a cherry-red schnoz—dad humor at its finest. Then, in February, when Bud Light wanted to extend the life of its Super Bowl spot starring Post Malone, Doing Things developed meme ads featuring the rapper that ran on seven of the company’s Instagram accounts, reaching roughly 20 million people. In all, Doing Things has created 50 such meme posts across four campaigns for Bud Light over the past year. The beer giant wouldn’t comment on exactly how much it spent, but it probably cost around $500,000, roughly a tenth of that Super Bowl ad’s price.

“They certainly can drive a lot of shareability,” says Conor Mason, the AB-Inbev marketing director who hired Doing Things last fall after friends kept sending him the company’s Instagram posts. The meme ads “are just like our editorial memes,” says Hailey. “It’s funny content that you want to share with your friends.” And if you and your friends don’t quite know it’s an ad, all the better.

Memes have become a lingua franca of the internet—easy as they are to pass around and consume—and Hailey and Lucas’ Doing Things Media control 20 meme pages on Instagram, a total of 41.2 million followers, most of them men under 35.

And sure, it may be a grim year for most businesses relying on marketing dollars: One report from New York consultancy Zenith Media forecasts a nearly 10% in global ad revenue. But Hailey and Lucas’ ad business is thriving. Doing Things is looking at revenue tripling this year from 2019 to almost $10 million. The company says it is profitable, with few costs beyond salaries for 25 employees and not even an office. (It recently gave up small place in Atlanta in favor of totally remote work.) “This year has been a nightmare in terms of everything that’s going on in the world, but for us, we’ve been really fortunate,” says Hailey.

In lean times like these, advertisers like a cheaper option than a traditional TV spot or glossy magazine page, where costs can run several fold more, and like the idea of reaching a young audience through content that closely resembles the stuff they’ve already enjoy. Meme advertising also comes with instantly available data about the demographics of who saw the post and how well received it was, timely reporting that many forms of conventional advertising lack.

Along with Bud Light, other advertisers have included Dole food, Crocs footwear, Netflix, Hulu, T-Mobile and Activision video games. These corporations pick which of Doing Things’ Instagram accounts will run their meme ads, and the brands don’t always publish the memes on their own accounts. This keeps the low-brow content at a polite distance from their traditional marketing and doesn’t draw attention to the meme post being an ad.

Reid and Hailey aren’t the only ones doing this type of thing. There’s New York-based Fuck Jerry, for one, their most well known rival. And traditional media is starting to pay attention, too. In August, Warner Music purchased IMGN Media, another meme-making company that’s roughly the same scale as Doing Things, for a reported $85 million. (Neither IMGN nor Warner Music would comment for this story.) That price tag seems like it could be a steal to Jerry Lu, an investor at Advancit Capital, a media-focused New York VC firm. He looks out over the next few years and sees a bidding war between establishment media firms who want to snap up newcomers like IMGN and Doing Things, prizing them for that ability to generate inexpensive marketing that doesn’t look like marketing. “Leveraging memes is cost efficient,” Lu says. “It’s a better source of customer acquisition than going the traditional advertising route.”

After winning deals to create ads for Gucci and Hinge, Lucas and Hailey decided to formally join forces, founding Doing Things in 2017. “It was a leap of faith,” says Lucas. “We were like…‘Let’s go all in on memes.’ ”

Tradition has never appealed much to either Hailey or Lucas. Hailey spent his childhood in suburban Atlanta as the unrepentant class clown. “I’ve always been that guy in classes making weird noises with my friends,” he says. He attended the University of Alabama, mostly for the social scene (“My four best friends were going. Like, I couldn’t miss out on that.”), and eventually dropped out. After growing up in Fremont, California, Lucas spent some time at a local community college before he too dropped out. “I wanted to go hustle,” Lucas says. “I wanted to go start my own business.”

So he did, a medical-marijuana delivery service. In between deliveries, he launched a number of Instagram meme accounts, including what he first called @DrunkPeopleDoingThings and later rechristened @NoChaser. Across the country in Georgia, Hailey set up a short-lived on-demand maid service and began @ShitHeadSteve on a lark in his parents’ basement at about the same time in 2015 that Lucas also ventured onto Instagram. The pair originally formed a friendship through an Instagram message group of a dozen or so people running similar accounts; the group called itself the Meme Illuminati and helped workshop each other’s Instagram content. After winning early deals to create ads for Gucci and Hinge, a dating app, Lucas and Hailey decided to formally join forces, founding Doing Things in 2017. Lucas moved to Atlanta to join Hailey a year later. “It was a leap of faith,” says Lucas. “We were like, ‘F—k it, let’s go all in on memes.’ ”

From there, they added several more accounts, including @DoggosDoingThings, @GamersDoingThings, @KidsDoingThings, @DoingThingsWrong, @GolfersDoingThings and @AnimalsDoingThings, all of which feature exactly the type of content you expect from the names. They have a total of nearly 12 million Instagram followers. On @NeatDad and @NeatMom (2.6 million total), there are riffs about marriage, kids and why Dr. Seuss’ Grinch chose to live alone—that is, to avoid marriage and kids.

Along with its ads business, 30% of Doing Things’ revenue comes from e-commerce sales, an area it hopes to grow further. It already offers a variety of goods online: T-shirts, koozies, aprons and gag gifts, such as a milk chocolate phallus that arrives in a box emblazoned with a tagline that encourages you to, well, eat it. In the last few months, Hailey and Lucas made the decision to decamp Atlanta for Los Angeles, where they’ll work out of their apartments and hope to land additional partnerships and brand extensions. They’ve found recent success with All Gas No Brakes, a year-old video series about a 23-year-old comedian’s RV-based journey across Trump Country that appears on Instagram and YouTube. It is funded almost entirely through Patreon, an art-focused crowd-funding site. Some 16,519 subscribers pay $5 a month, a sum of nearly $1 million a year, for additional videos from the show. They hope to turn it into a TV show and have signed a development deal with Abso Lutely Productions, a LA-based production shop that has made series for Comedy Central, Cartoon Network and Netflix.

They’re aware too that some of their Instagram accounts tend to ignore half the internet-going population. So they plan to start several women-focused ones and turn over those brands to women executives. “It’s important that we’re more than just beers and burgers,” Hailey says. “We want to be the one-stop shop for anything viral.”

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