How small budgets lead to big thinking

Telling a compelling story doesn't have to be expensive, writes BDW's founder

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of taking part in a few "money's no object" productions — hotels are nicer, free food is aplenty, and time, like the money part of this equation, is also no object.

Yet, while I stuff my face with another high calorie free treat, washed down with top shelf alcohol, I wonder how this excess helps to produce a better outcome. Projects like these are few and far between –– probably for the better.

It’s no coincidence that we often see more innovation during a recession. In fact, during the toughest months of the most recent financial downturn, startup activity actually surged. And perhaps more telling is the rise and recognition of "reverse innovation" – scaling growth in emerging markets and importing low cost innovations in mature ones — which the Harvard Business Review rated as one of the ten big ideas of the decade.

When resources are low, experimentation tends to be higher out of necessity, and working within time and money limits often forces a team to be more aggressive in ideation and more original in execution.

Figuring out this very real connection between budget constraint and creativity –– and how we can use limitations to create better work –– will become an even bigger deal in the near future, with massive parent companies like Unilever continuing to cut back on advertising dollars. Every agency and every creative will have to find a way to turn a budgetary constraint into a driver of creativity. But I don’t think this should be as hard as it seems because as our budgets are shrinking, our media channels, PR, social and digital options are expanding and, in some cases, exploding.

So how do you make a small budget drive the creativity in your next campaign?

Focus on great storytelling. Limited budgets provide focus by immediately limiting options. And telling a compelling story does not necessarily have to be an expensive proposition. Take the feminine hygiene brand, HelloFlo. After turning the feminine hygiene category on its head with the release of its hit, low budget, viral film "Camp Gyno," the HelloFlo marketing team followed up with an equally funny viral film called "First Moon Party," which racked up an enviable 1.5 million views in two days.

A huge budget would have likely killed the concept. A big budget would have pushed HelloFlo in the direction of doing what everybody else was doing; a focus on locales, production, and expensive film crews instead of the simple, direct and totally engaging story about a girl becoming the hero at camp just because she got her period and knew what to do about it. It is unlikely that the telling would have improved with more money and it is likely that the ad would lose the DIY charm that made it a big hit.

Leverage the power of humor. The HelloFlo success helps prove that nothing spreads online faster or makes people feel better than a good joke. The Dollar Shave Club and "Dumb Ways to Die" also proved this. Doing a lot with a little is so much better than doing a little with a lot. There are enough accessible production tools that we no longer need big budgets or big media buys to tell a funny story about a brand. The emphasis can be on the actual idea, or the joke, itself.

Take advantage of every resource. Working with what you have, rather than lamenting with what you do not have is a classic improv tool "Yes but" is an idea killer. "Yes and" allows ideas to be played out for new and unexpected possibilities. Take Droga5’s work for Unicef. Instead of lamenting the lack of resources, the agency enlisted help from other agencies and creatives, escalating the clean water effort from an in-house, pro bono project to an industry-wide, game changing campaign –– a campaign that many believe to be one of the best of the century.

I’m not alone in my opinion that there is power in the small budget; according to a 2009 study, 40% of marketing and advertising executives believe that tighter budgets can result in more innovative campaigns. So the next time you are handed over the seemingly impossible task of building a brand on nothing, remember that if you focus on what you do have –– a great story, a good joke or powerful, non-monetary resources –– you should be able to help your client find the solution. Everything that now exists was first an idea, an idea that solved a problem and addressed a real need.

David Slayden is the executive director and founder of BDW.

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