CMO of the Week: Hulu's Scott Donaton

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When Scott Donaton was promoted from VP - Head of Creative to SVP - Head of Marketing at Hulu in April, it was a full-circle moment for the media and marketing executive.

When Scott Donaton was promoted from VP - Head of Creative to SVP - Head of Marketing at Hulu in April, it was a full-circle moment for the media and marketing executive.

Having started his career as a journalist, Donaton spent the first decade of his career as a writer and editor with “Advertising Age,” where he created the content vertical “Madison & Vine” to document the then-nascent trend of “branded entertainment” -- the deepening relationship between advertising and film, TV & music that went beyond passive product placement into fully branded storytelling. Donaton then transitioned to the business side of media, serving as publisher of “Advertising Age” and later “Entertainment Weekly” and then spending a decade in chief creative officer roles at IPG Mediabrands and Digitas North America to develop branded entertainment programs on behalf of the agencies’ clients.  

Cut to late April 2021, which saw the premiere of the Hulu series “Exposure,” one of the first projects to roll out under the branded entertainment team (that sits within Hulu’s creative studio, GreenHouse) that Donaton helped establish in his first two years with Hulu as Head of Creative. The competition reality series saw photographers shoot their way to a $250,000 prize using the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G phone. The series was co-produced with Westbrook Media and Samsung’s ad agency BBH Entertainment. 

“It really fulfills on one of the things I came here to do, which is to help our advertising partners understand how they can break through in new ways and innovate,” Donaton says. “Kelly Campbell, our [former] president, had a great insight which is that there are fundamental differences in how viewers behave on streaming vs. linear. And yet the advertising experience hadn’t necessarily evolved along with that. That’s when BBH came to us wanting to build something for Samsung for the launch of their new phone and wanting to do it in a really breakthrough way. We worked with them and Westbrook to develop this idea, produce it and get it out into the world. It’s a great example of how brands can tell stories that are as worthy of viewing as our other content.”

Of course, expanding Hulu’s own brand awareness has become an even bigger part of Donaton’s remit in recent months. He took the company’s marketing reins amid an all-time high of marketplace competition for paid-TV services, be they traditional broadcast & cable or streaming VOD. Hulu has continued to grow its subscriber base at the industry’s fast pace, posting a 21% year-over-year increase in total subscriptions, to 42.8 million (as of July 3, 2021), according to Disney’s fiscal third-quarter 2021 results (Disney became Hulu’s majority stakeholder in 2019). A recent price increase that went into effect October 8 may test whether Hulu can maintain that growth rate, with ad-supported subscriptions rising from $5.99 to $6.99/month, and No Ads lifting from $11.99 to $12.99/month (other offerings like Hulu + Live TV and bundled subscriptions with partner services like Disney+ were not impacted by the price increases). 

Brand Innovators caught up with Donaton from his home office in Los Angeles to learn more about his first campaigns as Hulu’s marketing chief, the experiential marketing initiatives that brought record-breaking originals like “Nine Perfect Strangers” and “Only Murders In The Building” to life and how content series like “Initiative 29” are helping Hulu ramp up its storytelling from diverse voices. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: You were promoted from VP-Creative to SVP-Head of Marketing at Hulu in April. What has the transition been like?

Scott Donaton: In some ways it's been a steep learning curve, but a really fun ride. One of the things that I realized and really try to use as a vision for us is that no matter what your role is in marketing, we all have essentially one role. Hulu is a campfire, and our role is to get people to come sit around it and stay there. 

And the truth is I'm really looking to build a marketing culture that isn’t siloed. We’re all brand marketers -- we’re all responsible for how the brand is perceived and moves throughout the world. And we’re all growth marketers, because every one of us has the job of bringing this business forward.  So it’s really about how we bring that thinking into everything we do and unite in our approach. 

What are some of the first marketing initiatives or campaigns you've helped introduce as part of your new role?

One of the more exciting initiatives that we’ve worked on internally is something we called “One Hulu,” which was all about uniting our brand and product design systems and experiences. When I think about it in a way, a brand is a promise and the product experience is the delivery on that promise. We work to really make sure that those are united, and it’s been a great cross-functional initiative for us. 

We're really proud of our “Time To Have Hulu” campaign, which we just introduced the latest act that’s focused on our live product that launched last month. Instead of building out a product-focused campaign, it’s really about having one brand campaign that can flex across everything we do, which is something we haven’t really done before and I think it’s another great way to unite all the things we’re doing in one. 


 

Hulu originals like "Nine Perfect Strangers" and "Only Murders In The Building" have helped break new audience milestones and viewing records in the last month alone. To what do you attribute the success of those recent benchmarks?

We’ve definitely been on a roll from a content perspective, and breaking through in culture. “Nine Perfect Strangers” was the most watched Hulu original ever on its premiere day, and “Only Murders In The Building” was the most watched comedy original on its premiere day, also “Vacation Friends” was our most watched original film. It’s been an exciting month and we’re investing a lot more in original content like “The D’Amelio Show,” [FX on Hulu’s] “American Horror Stories,” [FX on Hulu’s] “Reservation Dogs,” the second season of “Wu-Tang.” 

We’re definitely on a roll right now, but it’s always about how do we tell stories that break through in culture, that resonate with people? And we have a great mix of data and gut instinct and creative instinct that go into programming things that we believe will resonate with our audience and telling those stories in the best possible way. We’re increasingly focused on making sure that we’re telling stories from a diversity of voices.

How has your launch marketing strategy evolved these past two years, with in-person events and experiential on hold until very recently?

We’re increasingly trying to look beyond traditional media advertising formats in how we introduce shows. We did our first ever after show for season 4 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” called “One Burning Question,” which viewers really loved and gave them a chance to dive deeper into the franchise while we introduced a new season.

We also just did a really cool activation at the Century City Mall where we recreated Tranquillum from “Nine Perfect Strangers” as an oasis for people, which was a really cool experience where you could get astrology and aura readings and proved very popular in its time there. For “Only Murders In The Building,” we took the tie-dye guy character that was breaking through in culture and sent 30 tie-dye guys around various places in New York city to show up and be followed and tracked, we did a projection mapping initiative in Columbus Circle that really superimposed the building from “Only Murders” on an actual New York City building turning the windows into a living investigation board.

And what we did outside of our shows for Pride Month last year was another great example. With a lot of the Pride parades canceled, we put on a virtual event which among other things enabled Pride to be a truly national event. It was amazing to see how we got notes from people living in small towns who felt connected to a community that maybe they were not connected to before. We had live concerts and programming events where you could make an avatar of yourself and travel through the world and this year we got to go into more of a hybrid environment. We did a great activation in New York on the High Line where we put these 7 foot tall flower sculptures in various places and they featured voice recordings from LGBTQ+ artists from different shows on Hulu like “Love, Victor” delivering messages and we created virtual extensions of those elements. A lot if it is about being where the audience is and being able to talk to them in relevant ways across all those touchpoints.

What does your off-channel media mix look like this year -- any platforms you're spending on more than others, and why?

From a video perspective, with the continued decline in linear TV viewing we have pivoted our video approach to a more holistic approach to how we plan and buy video to meet the goals we have. We’re increasingly leaning into that trend with upping our investment in those areas, especially to reach those cord-cutters and cord-nevers. The Summer Olympics were a great example of this. When we compare 2016 to 2020, there was a 47% drop in linear viewing against 18-49 -- whereas digital increased 22% so we’re adjusting our spending to recognize that.  

Another area we’re investing in is streaming audio, which much like streaming video experienced quite an increase in consumption during the pandemic. We’ve seen a lot of success through streaming music services or terrestrial radio, and we’re working with iHeart across their terrestrial and streaming properties. We’re looking to almost double our spend on audio.

What are some diversity, equity & inclusion initiatives Hulu has helped accelerate in the past year at a corporate level, and how have those manifested themselves in your marketing? 

It’s a key priority for us in both our team and in our offering and in our marketing that we reflect the world around us. We know that our audience is very diverse and we want to deliver diverse content and diverse experiences to them. From a marketing perspective, we introduced something called Initiative 29 in partnership with Disney+ and ESPN+ where we made a commitment to telling Black stories all throughout the year not just during the 28 days of February, what that means on the 29th of every month there's a new short-form content drop that focuses on socially conscious storytelling.

We're also heading into season 3 of “Your Attention Please,” which is a program from our creative team that tells stories of Black achievement, particularly outside of sports and music. We did a “Your Attention Please” live concert this year, which was an hour-long music special with some great guests like Lil Yachty. And we also produced a very important message that was distributed across all of our and Disney’s social channels to support the AAPI community amid hate crimes against Asian Americans.

At the end of the day, Hulu like the rest of the Walt Disney Company knows that we can use the power of storytelling to help make a better world. We have a program we announced a while back where we commissioned three new permanent monuments honoring historic women. It was initially connected to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but it’s ultimately about balancing the ratio of male to female statues in the U.S. and public artworks. So we commissioned artworks honoring Coretta Scott King. Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which are all now becoming real, permanent monuments.

Consumer media habits have shifted a lot in the past 20+ months. What behaviors do you think will be here to stay even after we continue to return to in-person gatherings at scale?

We’re really trying to just listen and learn and adapt and watch and change along with audiences as they figure out what a new normal looks like. We do think that consumer sampling across services is something where we’re seeing an acceleration. We’re at a point when a lot of people have three to five services, where they're taking an approach of sampling before they commit. 

We did a study that showed nearly half of people who signed up in the last month said they might only keep it long enough to watch the series they came to watch, and a third said they’re trying out services on a temporary basis.  TV fans know what they want, so it’s up to us to deliver the best experience through content libraries or originals or films. We have to earn that right to be on your mobile phone or living room screen.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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