How Hulu’s Creative Studio Greenhouse Sees the Next Era of Streaming Advertising

'First and foremost, though, it’s about creating better things for viewers'

scott donaton on the left
Scott Donaton (l.) has big plans for Hulu's new in-house studio. Getty Images
Headshot of Doug Zanger

In October, Scott Donaton made the jump from a long, distinguished career in the agency world to Hulu. Leaving Digitas, he joined the streamer as head of creative. He started at the beginning of December, reporting to Hulu CMO Kelly Campbell while working closely with Peter Naylor, svp and head of advertising sales.

Throughout the year, Hulu has continued to find innovative ways to serve viewers, including pause ads (a format that displays a static ad when content is paused) and highly anticipated binge ads (a unique format that makes binge-watching more palatable from a viewer’s perspective).

As the new ad formats and streaming continue to mature, this week Hulu opened a new creative studio, Greenhouse, to service the streamer’s brand and internal partners. Donaton began filling in leadership at the shop by bringing on Brandon Pierce and Liz Levy as vp/creative director and vp/head of creative for brands, respectively.

Pierce, who was most recently group creative director at Droga5, will be tasked with bringing together Hulu’s existing creative teams to “redefine TV” and bring to life “compelling stories around Hulu’s brand and content.” The 72andSunny, Sid Lee and Wieden + Kennedy alum is also charged with creating campaigns for the brand, from idea to execution.

Levy will focus primarily on the brand side of the aisle, working with Hulu’s advertising and internal partners to develop campaigns. Before joining, she was executive creative director at Complex Networks, working on brands including Slack, Xbox, Microsoft and Adidas.

Adweek caught up with Donaton to learn more about Greenhouse and his vision around creativity and brand success at Hulu.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

You’re building something interesting, and plenty of people will be watching closely. How will Greenhouse approach creativity?
Donaton: The No. 1 value is that we start with the viewer. It may sound obvious, but what’s really awesome is that we’re out to create better things for our advertisers and the brand partners we work with. It’s because we have a responsibility to our viewers. This isn’t about making something “cool.” Streaming is such a different behavior for audiences, and they want a different experience with messaging and all of the things that they interact with. Many brands are looking for help with this, and I think it’s a great challenge. First and foremost, though, it’s about creating better things for viewers and, in the process, doing the same for our brand partners.

You’re positioning Greenhouse a little bit differently than other, similar in-house teams. Why is that?
It’s crucial to me that both internally and externally, we’re not an agency. I don’t see Greenhouse as an in-house agency; I really see it as a creative studio. What that means beyond language is that, internally, we partner with the teams here to make great things.

When we’re creating marketing programs for Hulu as a platform and for our content, we’re not doing that as an agency. We’re doing that as a partner alongside co-workers and outside brands and advertising partners. Internally, we’re not an agency because we’re a partner, and externally, we’re not an agency because I’m not trying to replace any brand’s agency. I’m trying to partner with agencies, brands and whoever wants to partner with us. It’s a much more open, collaborative model. What we do have is our audience knowledge—the insights, the data—and that complements the creative thinking of people like Liz and Brandon.

How can you work effectively with agencies?
We all share a goal. If we have a brand partner using Hulu as a way to connect with and captivate their audience, they’re going to want to do that in the most effective way possible. And their agencies are setting out to do that. We want to dream up new ways to do that together. That can be in the format, it could be new ways of talking to people, or new ways of creating interactive elements to the conversation. But we bring the insights we have about our audience and technology tools for the same goal of making things that are worthy of people’s time.

There are some people out there like Jae Goodman [Observatory] and PJ Pereira [Pereira O’Dell] who have also been on this journey and been huge believers in how brands can create the highest quality entertainment to reach audiences. Those are the kinds of people who are reaching out to me, and I’m reaching out to them. We’ve all been having this conversation for a long time, and now it’s time to make it happen in a more significant way.

Where do you see innovation evolving in new ad products?
It always starts with insight. Pause ads began with this idea that there are over 1 billion ad-supported pauses every month on Hulu. That’s a great moment to speak to people. Binge ads began with around 50% of viewing sessions of people watching three episodes or more of a single show. We’re just starting to dig into this, but the creative team is really excited about how we can leverage these kinds of consumer insights.

There are places like Hulu Kitchen, a series of food and cooking shows that we’re launching with David Chang and Padma Lakshmi, and that’s a place where we can look at how we can involve a brand differently. There are places where there’s deep fandom, like adult animation and the other content and categories that our audiences clearly have a lot of passion for. How can we create more new things around opportunities like that? It could be shoulder content, new formats, and new ways to extend storylines and partnerships with brands.

What kind of talent are you looking for to fill in the teams?
I’m looking less at backgrounds and a little more at passion for this space in particular, and the idea that there’s a new model of how brands could communicate with people that we’re at the earliest stages of. It could be agency creators, journalists or maybe someone from a media agency that has had a content studio at some point. Some of them are doing fantastic work. To me, it’s not so much about the background and title, it’s more about creative thinkers across various fields who really believe in this space and want to help bring it to life.

Is streaming still the wild, Wild West?
I’m amazed that we’re still having some conversations that the brands haven’t moved beyond. And then other ways in which we’ve made incredible strides. I don’t think it’s the wild, Wild West anymore, but I don’t think it is as mainstream a marketing tool as it can and should be. We see some real flashes of brilliance in the stories and experiences that brands are creating, but you sense that for a lot of brands, they still look at it as a separate thing from everything else they’re doing.

What I’d like to see it get to is as a place where it’s another essential tool in the marketing toolbox. The streets have at least been defined, but I don’t think that they are necessarily paved yet. But the roads are being built, and some pretty fast cars have gone down them. I believe we are somewhere smack in the middle, but it doesn’t feel like it’s up to the full potential yet. And I’d like to get there quicker.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.