Embracing authenticity: Q&A with TikTok Creative Lab’s Stephanie Hulbert-Thomas

On creativity and brands making an impact

Stephanie is the Project Director of TikTok Creative Lab. We met her at D&AD after her TikTok’s ‘Easy. Stop overthinking that’ panel, which explored how brands are overcoming their often self-imposed struggles with authenticity and creativity on TikTok, in order to be better and braver and deliver more.

Stephanie, as Project Director, how do you see the platform evolving in terms of its role in the marketing and advertising landscape?

Stephanie Hulbert-Thomas

Being Project Director at TikTok means having a unique perspective on how the platform is evolving within the marketing and advertising landscape. My role specifically involves overseeing the Creative Lab for Europe, which encompasses several markets, including the Nordics and Central Europe. Each of these markets presents distinct needs and nuances.

What sets us apart and drives the transformation of the landscape is our deep understanding of our users. We have a first-hand view and perspective on the demographics, their passions, dislikes, and everything in between. This level of insight allows us to engage with consumers on a more personal level, establishing a one-to-one connection. For instance, we can delve into subcultures like beauty talk and observe how individuals in different locations, such as Milan or Liverpool, interact with beauty content. These nuances, practices, and passions shape our approach.

At TikTok we prioritize people over products. This is what sets us apart from more traditional platforms in the marketing and advertising industry. Instead of solely focusing on promoting products we place the community and its members at the forefront. By debunking the notion of product-centricity, we ensure that the user experience and their needs take precedence. This people-centric approach is our way of reshaping the landscape, emphasizing the importance of the consumer.

What makes TikTok’s complexity exceptional?

TikTok’s complexity is indeed a fascinating aspect to consider. It’s a question that doesn’t have a straightforward answer. The absence of a magic formula can often unsettle brands and make people hesitant about leveraging the platform to its full potential. However, I believe this lack of a secret sauce or predetermined formula is what makes TikTok truly exceptional. It liberates brands from conforming to a cookie-cutter approach and encourages the celebration of individuality.

While it’s understandable that this uncertainty can be nerve-wracking for marketers and advertisers, it should also be viewed as a strength and an opportunity. TikTok’s uniqueness lies in its ability to showcase diverse content and perspectives. By embracing the absence of a precise formula for success, brands can explore innovative approaches and unlock new possibilities. TikTok encourages creativity, allowing brands to connect with users in authentic and unexpected ways. The platform’s complexity should be seen as an invitation to think outside the box and discover the untapped potential it offers.

How do you encourage brands to embrace authenticity and creativity, rather than trying to impose a more traditional approach?

Embracing authenticity and creativity on TikTok involves challenging preconceived notions and assumptions. Despite having a large user base, TikTok attracts users of various age ranges, including older demographics like The Old Gays in the US and grand influencers, who are 80 years old or more. To foster authenticity it’s essential to debunk the stigma that TikTok is solely a dancing platform. While dance content is prominent, the platform encompasses numerous subcultures and communities.

To be authentic, brands must be open to understanding and experiencing these diverse subcultures without making assumptions. This entails exploring and engaging with the platform first-hand. In contrast to traditional advertising, TikTok offers an opportunity for collaboration and genuine connections with users. Brands can maximize this potential by taking risks, although the term ‘risk’ may not accurately describe the process. Instead, it’s about embracing the platform’s reality, moving away from the pursuit of perfection, and connecting with users on a genuine level.

This mindset applies not only to TikTok but also extends to various aspects of life. Being open-minded and willing to learn from younger generations is crucial for traditional media agencies and advertisers. By seeking perspective from younger individuals, these entities can adapt, grow, and create authentic content. It’s important to recognize that voting for the future, rather than just considering immediate needs, has a broader impact. Embracing the perspectives and insights of younger generations can lead to transformative growth and the ability to create authentically.

Could you discuss any recent campaigns or collaborations that you found particularly innovative or effective?

I have found the organic and authentic approach taken by brands like Ryanair, Aldi, and Tesco particularly remarkable. Rather than relying on paid campaigns, these brands have tapped into trends on TikTok in a genuine and natural way. They understand the importance of engaging with trends while adding their own unique twist, rather than simply replicating them. This approach allows brands to remix and adapt trends, effectively utilizing them to connect with their audience.

Speaking about that, I’d like to highlight a recent project, called Stem Drop, which we developed in collaboration with Samsung, as an innovative branded campaign. Stem Drop functioned as a pop title or an X Factor-style competition within TikTok, providing an incredible opportunity for producers, musicians, singers, and songwriters to leverage the platform. Participants were able to utilize a branded filter to create a bespoke track, starting with a beat and adding their vocals.

The campaign offers entrants the chance to have their songs released and featured on the platform through a draw. The response was remarkable, with thousands of entries and creative individuals coming together to produce unique tracks. Despite using the same instrument, each participant showcased their distinct perspective and style. The community-driven aspect of Stem Drop was truly touchy to witness on TikTok.


ArmonieJay overcame her fear and sang from the heart. @Moyo felt the beat and freestyled in the studio. Use this sound to let out your inner fears, show us what you’ve been hesitant to work on and GO FOR IT! Follow us, comment and tag us. We’ll feature the best videos! #StemDrop001 #usethissound #maxmartin #mentalhealthawareness #art

♬ Red Lights (StemDrop001) – @ArmonieJay – ArmonieJay

How do you see the relationship between brands and creators evolving on TikTok, and what role do you see both parties playing in the future of the platform?

The relationship between brands and creators on TikTok is likely to continue evolving in an exciting way. TikTok has proven that creativity knows no boundaries and that there is no predefined mould for being creative. People from all walks of life, regardless of their traditional creative background, can tap into their imagination and express themselves authentically on the platform. This authenticity resonates with audiences, bringing joy and entertainment to both creators and viewers.

We can expect to see the growth of multiple subcultures and communities on TikTok. People will become more open and multifaceted, showcasing their diverse passions and interests. This presents a valuable opportunity for brands and marketers to understand that consumers are not limited to a single identity or interest. TikTok enables users to explore and express their various passions, connecting with others who share similar interests. For brands, it will be important to recognize this multifaceted nature of TikTok users and embrace a more holistic approach to engage with them. Rather than assuming that consumers are interested in only one thing, brands can leverage the platform to identify and tap into the diverse passions of their target audience. By authentically connecting with users and participating in relevant conversations, brands can foster meaningful relationships and drive engagement.

In the future, the relationship between brands and creators on TikTok will continue to thrive as both parties contribute to the platform’s growth. Creators will play a pivotal role in shaping trends, fostering communities, and providing valuable content, while brands will have the opportunity to authentically connect with audiences and showcase their products or services in creative ways. By embracing the inclusive and diverse nature of TikTok, brands and creators can collaboratively contribute to the platform’s vibrant and ever-evolving ecosystem.

What advice do you have for brands that are new to TikTok and looking to make an impact?

For brands new to the platform, it’s an exciting journey of exploration. Playing around and engaging with TikTok is a fun and essential part of understanding its dynamics. Brands can begin by immersing themselves in the platform, exploring what captures their interest, and identifying emerging trends. Being proactive is crucial, because what might initially seem insignificant can quickly transform into a major trend within a day. Training the brain to recognize personal passions and interests is valuable in connecting with the wider consumer base. When brands create campaigns that resonate with their own passions, they establish a genuine connection with their target audience. Whether it’s selling products, promoting services, or building a personal brand as a freelancer, TikTok offers incredible opportunities for visibility and engagement.

Also, TikTok has evolved beyond entertainment. It has become a platform where people seek education and knowledge. Users actively turn to TikTok for tips, advice, and recommendations. For instance, when I travelled to Mexico, I searched for information on the places I was visiting and received helpful tips. This highlights how TikTok has become a versatile platform, functioning as both a source of entertainment and a search engine for discovery and learning.

Lastly, do you think TikTok will leave a legacy?

Absolutely, TikTok has indeed made a significant impact on society, especially considering its rapid growth during the pandemic. It emerged as a powerful platform precisely when people were seeking connection and entertainment while physically isolated. TikTok provided a space for individuals to come together, find joy, and form communities. It became a source of both entertainment and education, allowing users to explore various subjects and niches.

TikTok bridged the gap between people, fostering a sense of togetherness despite physical distances. It served as a medium for creativity, self-expression, and learning, offering an escape from the challenges of the world. The platform’s ability to bring individuals from diverse backgrounds and interests together has been transformative, allowing for the sharing of experiences, perspectives, and knowledge.

Featured image: instaphotos / Canva

Andrea Buzzi, Former Content & Social Media Editor at MediaCat Magazine

Andrea’s experience includes digital publishing, marketing, comms, media relations and editorial, working for companies such as Italian Publishers Association, Gruppo Mondadori and Condé Nast in Italy. She joined MediaCat Magazine at the start of 2023 after her second (and hopefully her last) move to London. In September 2023 she moved on to work for a fashion magazine.

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