The Duplass Brothers Explain Why They’re Jumping Into the Ad World With the Creative Shop Donut

Indie filmmakers think they're the perfect fit for brands

(L. to r.) Mark Duplass, Charlie Leahy, Nigel Lopez-McBean and Jay Duplass join forces in Donut. Nathan M. Miller
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

Over a decade ago, Mark and Jay Duplass made waves in the independent filmmaking world with their down-to-earth, low-budget approach. Now the brothers behind HBO’s short-lived Togetherness and the upcoming anthology comedy Room 104, as well as films like Blue Jay for Netflix—they’re prolific—are moving into the ad space with Donut, a new Los Angeles-based creative shop that will produce branded entertainment.

The Duplass brothers have partnered with ad veterans Nigel Lopez-McBean (Donut’s engagement director) and Charlie Leahy (Donut’s creative director), the team behind Optus’ Cannes Lion-winning work for Netflix: simple, humorous spots featuring Ricky Gervais breaking the fourth wall and talking about why he decided to do the ads, which introduced Netflix to Australia. Lopez-McBean previously worked for brands like Hendrick’s Gin, Citibank, Harley-Davidson and Honda and most recently served as director of social marketing and creative services at Optus. Leahy has held senior creative positions at shops like Ensemble and Emotive.

Adweek caught up with the team to ask why indie filmmakers would want to get into the ad business.

Adweek: You guys have a film deal with Netflix and a TV deal with HBO. You’re busy. Why do you want to launch a creative shop to work with brands? 
Mark Duplass: When we met Charlie and Nigel, who are running this company with us, they showed us this great thing they made with Ricky Gervais. These spots were super simple, super short creative. It struck me and Jay as exactly the kinds of stuff we used to make when we were kids, when it was just Jay holding the camera and me in front of it, and that pure element of short-form creativity that honestly from a creative perspective we kind of miss. We do a slate of movies for Netflix, we do all of our standard television stuff for HBO, but we don’t fart around anymore like kids making short-form creative stuff. Charlie and Nigel were basically like, that’s what the advertising industry is headed towards, doing advertising but with an entertainment mentality built into it.

So you want to be farting around and make creative stuff? 
Mark: But with brands’ money, yeah. That would be ideal. We don’t know if it’s going to work out yet, and we’re just getting started.

Mark and Jay Duplass also have starred in FX's The League (top) and Amazon's Transparent (above), respectively.

Are there any brands on board? 
Mark: We’ve started a few conversations with people that we’re not ready to talk about just yet.

Jay Duplass: The brands that we are talking to, their ears [have] perked up specifically by the way that Mark and I came up. … With our short films at Sundance, they were kind of handmade by Mark and me and some of our closest friends, and I think these brands and these companies are interested in our reduced production cost and our sort of like “let’s pull a few people together, let’s make something that’s inspired and with the lightning that’s striking right now.” We have the ability—and the way that we like to work, to knock something out in a few days—and it seems like there’s a lack of agility in the ad world, as far as we’ve been told. We don’t know because we’re new to it. That’s part of what we’re interested in doing. We like moving fast, we like running and gunning, and we work out of this big old house in Highland Park, and all of the filmmakers and TV producers and writers are all in here all day long, and we’ve got this team of people that we met at festivals throughout the years. This is kind of plug and play for us.

There are plenty of creative shops. Why should brands pay attention to Donut? 
Charlie Leahy: The beauty of what we’ve got here is that Mark and Jay are coming from a 100 percent creative side. They’re completely focused on what the audience wants, the story arc, the characters, what are people going to feel when they see this, how can we make people fall in love with what we’re creating and [make people] want to talk about it, share it with their friends. Then we’re here to make sure that turns into super effective results for brands, making sure that from a product and commercial point of view whatever we create will work hardest for the brand or the platform we’re creating it for.

Nigel Lopez-McBean: We’re in an environment now where brands talk about storytelling, agility, producing and production costs, engaging audiences and collaboration and that’s super natural to the guys on the team. They’ve always made stuff and helped others to make stuff. It’s kind of as if the industry sort of shifted towards the career storytellers and that’s what they are.

Branded content shops like Ridley Scott’s 3AM have used content that’s already being created, like The Martian, and made spots that tie in. Is that something Donut will do? 
Mark: We’re diving into something new and figuring it out. It’s just an interesting thing with filmmakers entering the ad world. There’s traditionally an us versus them mentality, which is kind of like we make our movies and then we’re going to go over here and make some money in the ad world. Jay and I, we’re just a little bit different, because the essence of who we are is a collaborative thing. We literally just wrote a book about collaboration [the book is still untitled]—what it means to learn from other people and build something together out of your unique perspective. Our whole approach is different from our peers. People are throwing money around—and in our opinion way too much money around—to make branded content. We’re nimble and we’re quick and we’re excited, so let’s see what we can do with a bigger collaboration.

This story first appeared in the May 1, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.