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FEATURED: Q&A with Donut’s Charlie Leahy

Donut - one of the newest branded content production houses in Los Angeles - seeks to be a destination for brands looking to engage consumers on an entertainment level unlike those that have come before it. What sets them apart? For starters, two of their founding partners are none other than Mark and Jay Duplass, the brothers behind over a decade’s worth of indie film hits and several HBO series. Add to the mix engagement director Nigel Lopez-McBean and creative director Charlie Leahy (industry vets and Cannes Lion winners) and you get a winning balance of ad and entertainment industry power. Brand Storytelling wanted to learn more about the promising new studio, so we chatted with Charlie Leahy about making awesome stuff, the content platform universe, and thinking “epically small.”

What do you do as an end-to-end one stop shop for branded content? When you say “end to end,” where does that begin and where does that end?

It begins with ideas. Whether it's Donut proactively taking an idea to a potential partner or we’re responding to a brief from a partner. Any idea we develop is two-fold. Not only do we have the creative solution - how the message or story will unfold - but we also deliver the strategy behind it.

Strategy could include how the content will roll out or be published, how and what social channels will be employed to engage the audience and how the content will be distributed and amplified. From there we can deliver every aspect of the content’s production.

We have an awesome network of the best indie film writers, producers and directors around at the moment and we have a kick-ass in-house production team who will make the content. We then deliver it and consult over the distribution in real-time. So we work with our partners and their media team to ensure the distribution strategy rolls out correctly and that the content we produce works its hardest for our partner.

Why is not disrupting a consumer’s news feed important to you? Why should it be important to brand marketers and agencies?

It is becoming more obvious to people now, but for a long time (going back to the dawn of the branded entertainment space around 10 or so years ago) you would see brands fixate on themselves and their product message over what the audience wanted to see.

The issue is people now have more choice and far more control over what they consume from a content perspective. If they don’t want to watch your advert or short film they simply won’t. Coming from a traditional entertainment background, we have always had the discipline of thinking about the audience-first - What are they into at the moment? What are they going to want to see? What are they going to want to talk about and share with their friends? It’s using this discipline that has led to a lot of the success I’ve had in this space over the years.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be upfront about the brand or the product message though. It’s a misconception that this affects the success of a piece of branded entertainment. You can be as up front about the brand and product as you want - and you should be - as long as you are delivering something that is of high value to the audience it will drive results for you.

How did your relationship with the Duplass Bros. come to be?

There are four of us who run Donut. My business partner Nigel Lopez-McBean and myself were working in Sydney, Australia. Nigel was on client side working for the second largest telecommunications company in Australia, Optus and I was ECD at social content agency Emotive.

We ended up creating the infamous anti-ad series with Ricky Gervais that won a bunch of awards including a Lion at Cannes. This led to use flying around the world and looking for different partnerships in the entertainment space.

We met Mark and Jay and realized they had an awesome model - almost a formula that we were interested in cracking. After hanging out with them we became friends via a shared outlook on entertainment and how it can be used in the advertising space. One thing led to another and suddenly we found ourselves packing up our lives by the beaches of Sydney and heading to Highland Park in LA and here we are today.

What value is added in having film/tv creatives like the Duplass Bros. on your team?

Mark and Jay have a unique approach to storytelling and a specific aesthetic. It’s what they call ‘Epically Small’ - and it's essentially about drawing incredibly powerful stories out of everyday humanity. This makes the stuff Donut creates super-relatable to the audience, which is something very powerful when it comes to content marketing.

When you combine this aesthetic and their track record as a leading indie Hollywood studio with our deep and proven knowledge of social, content and distribution strategy, we believe you have a one-of-a-kind model in the market.

How will a studio like yours achieve the balance between creating entertaining content and delivering value to brands?

Our innovative indie production techniques mean we can answer industry pain points around speed, cost of production and creativity. We can strike upon an idea with a partner in the morning and be in pre-production the very same day - increasing the speed of thought and creation. We also have unparalleled access to indie filmmaking talent (both onscreen and behind the camera) and an in-house production model that allows us to keep costs down. So for us it’s about making awesome stuff - but helping our partners do it quickly and in greater volume.

How will you do things differently when it comes to distribution and social; what strategies will you employ on the media agency end of your end-to-end service?

We don’t distribute the content ourselves, but we have a huge experience when it comes to distribution and amplification in the digital space. So everything we create comes with a detailed strategy for reaching and engaging audiences on whichever particular platform they may be.

For each project this strategy will change - depending on who the partner wants to talk to. Different platforms have different audiences who consume content in different ways. We look at it like a universe and for us it's about connecting all the planets in an optimum way.

What does the future hold? Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

A lot of of interesting possibilities! We’re speaking to a few brands who really dig what we’re about. We can’t announce anything yet but we’ll be announcing our first partnerships very shortly.

Pictured Above: Donut founders, left to right: Mark Duplass, Charlie Leahy, Nigel Lopez-McBean and Jay Duplass

For more on Donut, go to their website:


About Charlie Leahy (Creative Director, Donut)

Charlie started his career 19 years ago in television working across a number of entertainment and music shows for various broadcasters and producers including Flextech and BSkyB in the UK.

Charlie found a passion for developing new ideas which led to TV series commissions and later a move into digital media at the dawn of social media and branded content.

Whilst working at Endemol he created the world’s first branded global social media reality show, The Gap Year for Bebo and the Webby award winning web drama for MSN 'Kirill'. Charlie also created 'Unlimited', the first entertainment channel on Facebook and was a key member of the team who created the award winning digital support for the BBC comedy drama Being Human.

He moved to Australia in 2012 holding senior creative positions at leading content shops Ensemble (IPG Mediabrands) and Emotive; creating campaigns for a number of major brands including Optus, Virgin Mobile, Microsoft, ING Direct, Australian Defence Force, KFC, Subway, Airbnb, Virgin Mobile, Uber, Flight Centre and Canadian Club.

His groundbreaking work for Optus and Netflix with Ricky Gervais in 2015 won a Cannes Lion and 14 other international awards.


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