It had been several years since I last interviewed Chris Kringle, the Chief Yuletide Officer of Santa, Inc. So, early in December, when a courier arrived with an invite from the jolly old elf himself, I eagerly packed my notebook and earmuffs. Once again, via stretch limo and red-and-white-striped G6, I was whisked to an undisclosed location in the far, far north.
The plane landed on a great frozen plain, and came to a stop next to a little bunker-like building with some twinkly lights on it. Just inside the door, there was a burly white-haired guy, in jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with, “Santa does it all night long!” He held an elevator door open and waved me in.
“…our sharp-eyed elves gotta review everything. No joke. You mix up your ‘Baby Doll’ with your ‘Babydoll’ and—whoops! First thing you know the lingerie is in the wrong stocking.”
“Mr. Kringle!” I said, “Nice to see you again! Thanks for agreeing to another interview for The Measurement Advisor.”
“Nice to see you again, too, young fella! You know me, I love to talk measurement. That’s half our job up here.”
He caught me staring at his t-shirt. “This? The product placement guys sent me this prototype. What do you think: A bit over the top, maybe? By the way, I hope you liked that iPhone X prototype I snuck into your stocking last year. Ho, ho, ho! ”
Santa’s workshop revealed
The glass-walled elevator dropped us down into the underground labyrinth that is Santa, Inc.’s workshop and world headquarters. We descended past floor after floor of wood shops, gift wrapping stations, cubicles, and conference rooms, all bustling with earnest, green-uniformed workers. “Santa Baby” played in the background.
The elevator came to a stop and we stepped out into a cavernous work space jammed with eager-looking millennials working on tablets and laptops. White boards, charts, and infographics covered the walls.
“I see the elves are still hard at work, Chris.”
“You’re telling me, son, we gotta be lively and quick this time of year.” Then his grin vanished and he shook his head. “I hate to say it, but there’s nothing like a greedy political climate to inflate the wish lists. You should see the spike in mail in the past couple years. All of a sudden the kids in your neck of the woods seem to think they can just demand some kinda deal out of Santa. And they’ve really forgotten their manners as well.” And then, with a twinkle back in his eye, “But, you know, orange-skinned troll dolls are a big thing this year.”
“…sooner or later St. Nicholas had to enter the 18th Century. That’s when I brought on the elves and went through the whole rebranding to Santa Claus. Now that was a measurement nightmare. ”
Out of the hubbub of busy workers came a couple of earnest, bearded young men. They handed Mr. Kringle a clipboard with some papers on it. “Just a moment, kid, while I check the latest data.” He leafed through the reports: “These numbers are good, this study just doesn’t have a big enough sample, and these knuckleheads”—he slashed a line through something—“know better than to give me that old ‘millions of impressions’ line. Flag them for the Naughty list.”
As the two guys hustled off to a busy conference table, Santa said sotto voce, “You see the facial hair on those two? It’s all the rage now, eh?” His eyes twinkled as he stroked his own luxuriant full Santa. “I guess what goes around comes around.”
“I tell you, Chris,” said I, “It’s always amazing to see the size of your operation up here.”
He gestured me into a well-appointed office with big windows all around, overlooking acres of cubicles and candy cane-colored conference tables.
An image-and-data-driven empire
“Just look at what we’ve got here,” said Kringle, pointing at a multicolored spreadsheet on a wall-sized monitor. “Yeah, sure, R&D and toy production are big. But Santa, Inc. is really all about communications and measurement. We’ve got media monitoring and analysis, marketing mix models, predictive analytics… This is an image-and-data-driven empire, and I gotta keep tabs on everything.”
“OK, OK, once in a while I put on the red and white suit and make a few appearances down at the mall. But most of the time I’m taking meetings with the Head of Toy Production, or pushing those loonies in the creative mosh pit to come up with some new product placements. How do you like those sugarplums?”
“I’m always amazed, Chris, to be reminded that there really is a Santa Claus, and he’s a $200 billion industry.”
“No joke, I tell ya,” said Chris. “It’s taken a hell of a lot of work to build our brand. The big wide world out there thinks “jolly old fat guy, reindeer, and sleigh,” right? Ha! This is big business—really big business—and Santa is just what’s out front of the curtain. ”
He smiled proudly. “Like any giant organization, we’ve got an image to promote and a reputation to keep up. Hell, buddy, I don’t even want to think about how much we spend on PR.
“For instance, holiday airtime is a huge part of our comms mix. We’ve got a whole floor full of Juilliard graduates that just sit around making up holiday carols that mention Santa. Hey, no joke. They’re a long shot, I admit, but some of them pay off with massive exposure. Take that ‘Here Comes Santa Claus, Right Down Santa Claus Lane’ ditty.” He laid a finger alongside his nose and gave me a wink. “Let’s just say Gene Autry didn’t think up that one all by himself.”
“So, then, Chris,” I asked, “what’s your biggest measurement headache?”
The nuisance of Naughty and Nice
“Oh, that’s gotta be Naughty and Nice, hands down. Talk about your difficult measurement problem! That ‘checking it twice’ stipulation requires a huge investment on our part. Of course, being Santa and all, we know when they’ve been bad or good, so you’d think that’d make for pretty straightforward research. I mean, how many ways can little Johnny and Susy get in trouble, right?” Mr. Kringle rolled his eyes.
“Hey, you’d think I’ve seen it all by now, but times change and we constantly have to update the Bad or Good coding. Which reminds me, kid,” Chris looked me right in the eye, “you better be keeping tabs on that lovely daughter of yours and her new boyfriend. Word to the wise, my friend.”
“You know, the N & N thing goes for adults, too. Believe it or not, they’re really easier to measure than the kids. See way over there?” he pointed to a dark corner with a conference table full of scruffy characters with laptops and cans of Red Bull. “Our hackers there scrape great stuff off the NSA and the Russians. You add that to the social media, and we got most people pretty well pegged.”
He sees you when you’re sleeping
“Which reminds me.” He consulted his iPhone for a moment, then gave me an impish grin and a slap on the back. “All right kid! That was a nice little thing you did for your wife last night! You, my man, are well into the Nice range this year.”
I blushed. “Y-you mean you really know—”
“Relax, bub, it’s my job: ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping,’ and all that. The stories I could tell you…” Ho, ho, ho.
“So, Santa, what’s new with your communications measurement?
“The biggest thing for us right now is AI. Heck, you talk about your big data? We got your biggest data right here. Between all the letters to Santa, our Legion of Santas at the malls, the social and traditional media, we’ve got billions of data points to stay on top of. And then, of course, we have the whole ‘knows what you’ve been thinking’ monitoring thing, so that adds terrabytes more every day.
Your coders down there get all excited about 10,000 articles a month. Ha! That’s nothing to us. You noticed the server farms on the way down, right?” He beamed with pride. “Google just wishes they had our technology.”
“Automation does the heavy lifting, of course, but that AI still has a ways to go. So our sharp-eyed elves gotta review everything. No joke. You mix up your ‘Baby Doll’ with your ‘Babydoll’ and—whoops! First thing you know the lingerie is in the wrong stocking. Jeesh, I make one little mistake,” Mr. Kringle shook his head and smiled ruefully, “and I never hear the end of it.”
“Now as for sustainability and climate change, well, we’re quite sensitive to that up here. Thin ice and all. Yeah, that whole ‘coal in the stocking’ thing turned out to be a big mistake. But we’re working on it. You talk to Gretchen at the reindeer shed when we’re done here and she’ll show you our upgraded methane generator. Runs the whole damn woodshop.”
“Yeah, Chris, well, I must say I’m surprised to see you so current on the latest in PR measurement and evaluation.”
“Well, kid, we’d be lost without it. You know I read your newsletter every month. Plus, I got some solid backup. See that red phone over there on my desk? That’s the hotline—no really—straight to The Measurement Queen herself. We go way back. Betcha didn’t know that.” He gave me a wistful smile and winked. “Ho, ho, ho!”
“But, seriously, a couple hundred years ago when I was still a startup as Father Christmas, me and the Mrs. used to do all this ourselves. I had to be good at measurement ’cause there was no one else to do it. But times change, you know, and sooner or later St. Nicholas had to enter the 18th Century. That’s when I brought on the elves and went through the whole rebranding to Santa Claus. Now that was a measurement nightmare. ”
Benchmark against Elvira?
“How about the competition, Mr. Kringle?”
“Now, you wouldn’t think competition is something we worry too much about. And it’s true; Santa is the undisputed king of the gift-giving holidays. But this racket is a tough one. You got to know when to fight ’em and when to join ’em. Our merger with the Christ child’s birthday was the smartest move we ever made. Well, in your little neck of the woods, anyway.
“We do have to keep close tabs on the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. But I tell you what. I’m more than a bit worried about that Halloween. No joke, it’s coming on strong. We’ve had to do some pretty fancy work to protect our territory. That Tim Burton did a bang-up job with ‘Nightmare Before Christmas,’ don’t you think?” He gave me another wink.
“And, measurement-wise, Halloween is one tough challenges. Now, you take your Easter Bunny, for instance. There I can do a nice clean comparison of coverage. But how are we supposed to measure that damn Halloween? What do I benchmark against? The Great Pumpkin? Elvira? You and your buddy Katie got any ideas on that, I’d sure love to hear them.”
Kris moved back toward the office door. “Well, kid, it’s been nice talking to you again, but I gotta get out and give the old sleigh the once over. It’s that time of year, you know.”
As I got back in the elevator, I said, “Thanks for talking to The Measurement Advisor, Chris. Maybe we’ll catch you again next year? And, hey, before I go, can I just mention that awesome new Bang & Olufsen Beosound Edge Speaker—”
“Relax, kid,” he said with a wink, “You write up a decent interview and we’ll see what we can do.” ∞