At some agencies, rejected ideas get scrapped and disappear for good. At Denizen, they’re used to make viral videos.
Founded in 2008, Denizen had seen its share of success with high-profile campaigns for Pepsi, HTC, and Disney (Johnny Depp even joined in on that last one). But content creators were still frustrated when ambitious pitches were turned down for being too risky. They realized they needed a place to produce these ideas without third-party interference. That’s why HelloDenizen was born in 2014, a YouTube channel that has racked up over 33 million views thanks to viral hits like the “Tiny Hamster” series.
“Originally the function of it was purely like, fuck it, let’s just make stuff that we like and not worry about if clients want to buy it or not,” co-founder Joel Jensen told me.
The first three videos in particular—“Tiny Hamsters Eating Tiny Burritos,” “Guy Does Amazing Bottle Cap Snap Tricks,” and “Angry Dogs in Cute Costumes“—were pulled from Denizen’s Good Idea Archive, a running list of rejected pitches and wacky ideas.
However, the channel quickly evolved into a calling card for attracting new clients. And those ideas that were once rejected by brands became selling points for what Denizen could accomplish with its agency work.
“When we’re in meetings, people realize they have seen our videos … and instantly there’s validation in who we are,” Jensen said. “We’re able to call back to that and say, ‘Yeah, we’re about earning engagement. We’re gonna try to develop creative that fits your brand, and we’re going to create an internet-relevant video that audiences want to see.'”
Suddenly, Denizen wasn’t just having an easier time landing new clients, it was also earning the creative freedom it craved.
“Before we were making content like this, we had to work a little bit harder to—for lack of a better phrase—get our way,” Jensen said. “It gave us a shorthand to point out that, on a consistent basis, the decisions we make are well informed.”
Most notably, Denizen started to make sponsored “Tiny Hamster” videos with brands like Reynold’s Wrap and Clorox. The agency also incorporated the “cute animal” theme into custom campaigns for other clients. Pepsi’s “Cutest Halftime Show Ever,” for instance, featured puppies, porcupines, and ducklings trying different sports and obstacle courses. And Target’s “Animals Go Back to School” featured, true to the title, tiny animals going to school.
Speaking of tiny animals, Jensen attributes HelloDenizen’s success to the fact that the team was able to refine a format that worked. Along with featuring cute creatures, almost all of the channel’s videos tell a quick and simple story in less than two minutes.
“We’re finding that YouTube audiences subscribe to channels for very specific content,” Jensen said. “We take what our audience expects and wants from the channel, which is cute animal content, and keep it interesting for ourselves to keep creating.”
The core traits of these videos are also consistent with Denizen’s agency content.
“HelloDenizen is more animal-focused,” said co-founder Joe Matsushima. “But if you look at our Denizen company content, you’ll see the same philosophy of visual, idea-based concepts.”
As with Denizen content, HelloDenizen videos also require a full commercial production. While internal directors usually run the creative process, Denizen also brings in external line producers, production managers, camera operators, camera assistants, costumers, and set designers—many of whom have commercial production backgrounds. Depending on the video, there can be anywhere from 10 to 20 people involved—all so we can see a hamster eat a tiny burrito. (Animal trainers and up to 20 stunt hamsters are brought on board too.)
“We were an agency first, and then we became content creators for YouTube,” Matsushima said. “When we started, brands would come to us and say, ‘We don’t have an owned audience. We want to create an ad that earns an audience.’ So distribution for us was vital.”
“We quickly learned that ideas that can be described really concisely and don’t deviate from that core description are much, much easier to distribute.”
After each new video gets published, the team reaches out to influencers on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs in order to drive organic growth.
“We quickly learned that ideas that can be described really concisely and don’t deviate from that core description are much, much easier to distribute,” Jensen said. “So that has informed the way that we develop creative too.”
This outreach strategy has paid off in millions of views, new business, and even a book deal. As the story goes, Simon & Schuster reached out to the company just a day after Jensen had brought up the idea of HelloDenizen making a children’s book. Matsushima remembers thinking, “There’s no way that’s gonna happen.”
After realizing the Simon & Schuster email wasn’t a prank, HelloDenizen jumped on the opportunity to produce Tiny Hamster Is a Giant Monster, written by Jensen, Joe Matsushima, and co-founder Amy Matsushima. Naturally, the book launch also came with a video.
The question remains: How does Denizen balance running a full-service creative agency and a hit YouTube channel?
“Obviously, the agency takes priority and that can make it very difficult just to find time and energy to put into HelloDenizen,” Jensen said. In the future, the plan is to build a more sustainable, predictable, and cost-effective model for the channel by launching more series like “Tiny Hamster” and “Animal Arcade,” which just premiered its first episode, “Pac Dog,” in August.
Jensen joked that he wishes Matsushima and he were more charming, better looking, and younger so they could build a channel by just talking to the camera. “But we’re like 30-year-old losers,” he said. “We have to hide behind animals, which makes things much more expensive and complicated.”
To make this growth easier and more efficient, the goal is to make Denizen and HelloDenizen more aligned. For example, Denizen talent can contribute to HelloDenizen projects, and HelloDenizen content can help attract more brand partners.
“The first step with HelloDenizen was to prove to ourselves that we could do high-quality videos at a low budget and go viral, which we did,” Matsushima said. “It’s just that our priority right now is our agency. We’re finally at a point of maturity and we want to turn it into a legitimate business with real growth, so we’re just trying to find that balance.”