With a contagious enthusiasm for all things automotive but a visual style that owes more to skateboarding videos than a Top Gear episode, Donut Media has spent the last three years turning its YouTube channel into a destination for a new generation of car lovers.
Today the channel boasts more than 3 million subscribers and up to 38 million views monthly. It’s a following they’ve built by embracing the platform’s culture of imperfection, making room for failure, and using instant feedback from viewers to shape and direct future content.
Having a used wheelchair on set doesn’t hurt, either.
Making an Authentic Connection
Donut Media got its start as a niche commercial agency producing viral content for automotive brands. Fairly quickly, though, the team realized there was enough interest in what they were doing that they could create their own channel and bring a much-needed voice to the world of car fandom.
“Donut is a way of getting into cars. And then, once we’ve recruited you, hopefully we can give you enough content to satiate this disease we’ve given you.” — James Pumphrey
“We looked around and saw that there was a lot of car stuff for our dads, and a lot for dudes our age or older that was a little more macho than we identified as,” says James Pumphrey, editor-in-chief of Donut Media. The technical nature of the subject matter also means that potential viewers who didn’t grow up working under the hood with a parent or older sibling can feel like an outsider.
The idea was to create a welcoming space for car enthusiasts that required no previous knowledge of how cars work and that fully embraced the superlative-driven, communal spirit of YouTube and other social platforms. Part education, part fan club, the shows are a celebration of automotive obsession—from fast cars to classic cars to Frankenstein cars pieced together from after-market accessories they were never intended to have.
“It’s about sharing the joy of cars on the internet,” says Pumphrey. “Donut is a way of getting into cars. And then, once we’ve recruited you, hopefully we can give you enough content to satiate this disease we’ve given you.”
Currently, the team posts four new shows a week, but is ramping up production to soon offer daily content. Regular series include Bumper 2 Bumper, which delves into the backstory of interesting and unusual cars, and HiLow, which follows the team’s ongoing adventures upgrading two identical cars with expensive and cheap parts to see the difference.
One secret to growing and keeping viewers, says creative director Jesse Wood, has been creating a connection based on authenticity. The shows’ hosts don’t try to present themselves as experts—just fellow fans that happen to have the coolest job ever. If an upgrade goes south or you, say, use the wrong paint sprayer and end up with a hot, hot mess, well, you’re all learning together.
In one HiLow episode, for example, the crew attempts to install a universal roll cage on their Nissan 350Z. But even with a custom welder on set and half a day of effort, the modification turns out to be a bust—and an expensive one at that.
“It was a dramatic failure,” says Wood. “But we left that in the episode to show people that even we don’t always know what we’re doing. Don’t sweat it.”
The emphasis on authenticity extends to the filming process as well. On set, the crew embraces imperfection and a scrappy resourcefulness. Much of the footage is shot on a Sony a7S and scenes regularly offer peeks at the production process itself—hosts wrangling with a camera to get the right shot or the studio’s lighting setup.
When Wood decided he wanted to create an ambitious 360-degree spin of each car for the Bumper 2 Bumper series, the logistics immediately raised issues, says supervising producer Kristina Nikolic.
“When they pitched me that they’re doing 360 shots around a vehicle, I was like, ‘It’s going to take eight hours to lay that track down and put it back up. That’s impossible,’” recalls Nikolic. “And they were like, ‘Oh no, we have a wheelchair.’”
Instead of laying a dolly track around the perimeter of the car, the crew decided to pull the cameraman in an old wheelchair, keeping a tracker at the top of the car in the center of the frame. Watchful viewers now take pride in catching the wheelchair’s reflection in the car’s glossy coat.
“That’s when I fell in love with these guys,” says Nikolic. “They take anything you can use. Anyone can make an episode of Bumper 2 Bumper, because we don’t use expensive equipment.”
For Pumphrey, creating that sense of attainability is essential to making the show and its content feel accessible to viewers. “I think one of the biggest parts of YouTube is, when someone watches something, they have to think, ‘I can do that.’”
Click above and below to watch four videos from Donut Media's YouTube channel.
A Focus Group of Three Million
Finding the channel’s voice wasn’t something that happened overnight, but was instead a slow evolution. “So much of our creative and our voice has come from us just naturally reacting to our audience,” says Wood. “We’re always making these micro-adjustments.”
Sometimes the viewers latch on to a funny bit that then becomes a running gag in the show. Other times, there’s a collective silence, offering proof that a concept that seemed great in the writers’ room isn’t connecting with the audience.
“The beauty of the Internet is that we’re able to pretty much immediately take that feedback and apply it,” Wood says.
The instant feedback also provides a safety net of sorts, giving the team freedom to push boundaries and try new things. If something doesn’t work, they know immediately and can pivot—without investing weeks of resources on the wrong path.
“One of the reasons we’re able to succeed and try for big things is that we’re encouraged to fail,” says Pumphrey. “We’re allowed to screw up—and to learn from it. I think that’s a nice base to operate from.”
“One of the reasons we’re able to succeed and try for big things is that we’re encouraged to fail We’re allowed to screw up—and to learn from it.”—James Pumphrey
It also helps keep ego out of the process. “It means you can’t fall in love with an idea that doesn’t work. In a traditional setting, there could be potential for one of us to really get headstrong about something and then we make 12 more episodes and waste a bunch of time and money. But here, we can be like, ‘Dude, no one likes it.’ You can’t fight math.”
Keeping Things Interesting
In many ways, Donut Media’s easygoing on-screen vibe belies the massive amount of effort that goes into each episode.
“One of the things that really separates us from the pack is the amount of work we put in,” says Pumphrey. “We make it way harder on ourselves.” Every show has a fully written script, which often includes research into a car’s history, its owner, and the mechanics within.
And then there’s the editing process. A single 10-minute Bumper 2 Bumper episode, for example, can mean wrangling more than an hour of talking-head footage, B-roll of the car’s features—including the show’s signature 360-degree turn—and historical assets that help tell the car’s story.
The challenge of putting that all together into a cohesive, visually com-pelling package largely falls to the show’s editorial director, Max Maddox. With tight deadlines and complicated edits, it’s a job that requires flexibility and creativity.
“I think a lot of editing is problem solving—being able to use your own resources to get stuff done,” says Maddox. On any given day, that might mean quickly sketching his own historical assets if an episode doesn’t come with any, or creating a “younger” version of the car’s owner by sticking an adult head onto a kid’s body. “I’m always having to design and make things out of necessity. I use Photoshop, After Effects, and Premiere Pro heavily on a day-to-day basis.”
Producing for a YouTube audience also means competing for a viewer’s attention in a crowded field of creators. “Our videos have to be very visually compelling. Otherwise people won’t watch them,” says Maddox. “So there always has to be something happening and moving.”
A fan of surrealist comedy, Maddox makes a point of experimenting with the show’s transitions and effects to see just how far he can push the envelope. “If I know I need to get the host off-screen, for example, I’ll go into After Effects and think, ‘What if I morph him into the next scene? Or make him float away? Or I just have him explode?’” Over time, he says, the over-the-top effects have become a part of the show’s personality.
That drive to keep pushing boundaries both visually and conceptually is part of what has helped the company get to where it is, says Wood.
“We’re constantly reinventing ourselves. It’s always in the back of our heads that we have to maintain our agility,” he explains. “We encourage everyone to be on YouTube and just watch stuff—specifically channels outside of our space—because there is so much innovation happening in how people tell stories online. And a lot of that, just statistically, is happening outside of the automotive space.”
And once you have an idea, don’t wait to perfect it, says Felipe Armenta, director of Bumper 2 Bumper. By the time you’ve ironed out all the wrinkles, the internet will have moved on.
“If you have the slightest interest in something, grab a phone. If you don’t have access to a phone, go buy a shitty used DSLR,” he encourages. The team’s first Up to Speed episode, he recalls, was shot on a Nikon D5200 they had on hand because they didn’t want to waste time going back to the office for the Sony FS700.
“If you have an idea, go shoot it. It’s not going to be perfect,” says Armenta. “If you’re between 40 and 60 percent ready for whatever you want to do, just go do it. If you sit there trying to plan it out, you’re losing time. That video could have already been up on the internet.”
Nikolic agrees. “Truly, you are your biggest roadblock.”
Interviews: Alejandro Chavetta
Photography: Kendall Plant
Behind-the-scenes video: Erik Espera