Hulu Taps Its Stars for Virtual NewFronts Pitch With 9-Part Event

Digital-only format 'allowed us to be more creative,' Scott Donaton says

Illustration of Hulu Newfronts ad
Hulu star Ramy Youssef will host one of nine episodes during Hulu's upcoming NewFront presentation. Hulu

Hulu executives began planning their 2020 NewFronts event last fall, intending on pulling off another live presentation that has in past years been well-attended and positively received by marketers. That all changed in mid-March, when the Covid-19 pandemic upended plans throughout the industry and caused the NewFronts to shift to a virtual format, and then get postponed for two months.

Despite the delays and new virtual format, the Disney-operated streamer is finding a lot of things to like about its reimagined NewFront, which it will present to marketers Monday afternoon.

“This has really required us to be even more creative and strategic than before,” said Nicole Sabatini, vice president and head of b-to-b marketing at Hulu. “We have a really strong story to get in front of advertisers, and that remains the same, and if anything, this digital format is providing us an opportunity to give marketers more information.”

Hulu’s presentation will consist of nine short consecutive episodes, featuring Hulu stars like Ramy Youssef, Elisabeth Moss and Amy Schumer, who will run through new programming, ad options and viewership trends while emphasizing the opportunities for advertisers to get in on the action. Each episode, which will be available to watch as standalone on-demand episodes after the presentation wraps, will be accompanied by additional bonus content and information that will include everything from sit-down video interviews to additional research.

Scott Donaton, Hulu’s head of creative, said the team worked through multiple presentation ideas—including an animated production, podcast or even a virtual reality event—before settling on remotely filmed episodes.

“At the end of the day, we asked, what are we really good at?” said Donaton, who joined Hulu from Digitas in October. “And what we landed on is that we’re great at storytelling, and particularly episodic storytelling.”

Hulu took cues from other shows that have experimented with remote production, sending equipment rigs to stars’ homes to film last month. In some cases, masked and gloved engineers set up recording equipment, while other talent did it themselves. Upon shooting, directors offered notes through Zoom. In one instance, Steve Martin and Martin Short, who are making a comedy series for the streamer, filmed simultaneously so they could riff off each other’s jokes.

The decision means that Hulu will have its stars serve as the main messengers of Hulu’s message to advertisers, similar to Disney’s Upfront Roadshow in late May and early June that employed a similar tack, with talent like Ellen Pompeo and Ryan Seacrest narrating packages devoted to Disney’s “core pillars.” (Hulu and Disney are also both emphasizing their connections to the other in their respective presentation. Disney already unveiled its first ad offering involving Hulu, called Disney Hulu XP, during its virtual roadshow.)

“It ultimately allowed us to be more creative,” Donaton said. “If you think about a normal show, you may have had stars come out on stage. But only in this environment can you have Amy Schumer floating in her pool on a unicorn float as she presents. We could have more fun and more freedom, and a lot of talent was really game.”

There’s another benefit to the virtual format, too. The presentation, which is produced by Hulu’s creative studio Greenhouse, will double as a half-hour piece of branded content showing what that in-house studio can pull off.

Marketers who have been registered for Hulu’s event in advance have been treated to pieces of information and content that the streamer has distributed to build excitement and interest in the presentations and ensure live tune-ins. Hulu gave marketers a six-month subscription free as a reward for signing up early. Marketers were also treated to a video message from actress Kerry Washington, who reminded them to tune in to the NewFronts and to her show Scandal, which recently landed on the streamer, while also sharing which shows she’s been binging through quarantine. (She’s watching Fargo, This is Us and The Handmaid’s Tale.)

“We know this year in particular, brands and advertisers are going to be ready to talk about the upfront at different times,” Sabatini said. “With the NewFront shifting later, we wanted to engage with them early, and we want to make sure there is a way to engage with them afterward.”

Hulu, like the other presenters, hopes its presentation will keep marketers plugged in as they watch via laptop screens instead of from theater seats, and that marketers will go back to episodes again and again as they make media buying and planning decisions. And there’s optimism from Hulu that the lessons they learn from their 2020 presentation can be applied to future years, no matter the format.

“As we look into the future, we have to ask, how can we take this element of trying new things and innovating in ways that we didn’t think was possible?” Sabatini said. “Regardless of the future format, we want to learn how we can do things differently, all with the goal of providing as much effective information for advertisers in the most engaging way we can.”

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.