Doing digital on a budget: How 5 shops created great work on the cheap

In digital, you either adapt or you die. Metabolisms are faster, the need for flexibility is unparalleled and great things have to be accomplished on increasingly shrinking client budgets. What’s an agency to do?

“Design to a cost,” said Mark DiMassimo, CEO of DiMassimo Goldstein. “Creativity is not coming in with a $10 million idea that we can’t produce.” Rather than pitching dream projects, agencies need to figure out how to achieve the same effect while staying in the black. “That’s where the creativity is.”

Here are a few ways that the best small agencies do more with less — and still turn out great digital work.

Raid the client’s filing cabinet

With a staff numbering 35, Almighty was facing huge production costs when asked to design a dynamic, highly visual scrolling page for client New Balance, complete with looping video elements.

Fortunately, the client had quality footage of their hi-tech product testing facility on-hand. This is a situation Almighty has benefited from before; they’ve learned to inquire about assets at the start of the process.

“We get a lot of interesting things when we ask for them,” said David Onessimo, associate creative director at Almighty. “Clients tend to not realize what they have in their file cabinets. We’d go back to them and say, ‘Hey, do you have any footage of this?’ And 80 percent of the time, they could get it for us.”

Both client and agency were more than happy to save time and money by using the footage. “The more collaborative we can be, the better the product and the more efficient it tends to be financially.”

Channel the immediacy of social

Take-out delivery service Seamless went all out in creating an in-house agency to handle promotions, and it’s been pulling out the stops to deliver thousands of online and offline ads at a digital pace.

The first step was making social an integral part of the process.

“The social person sat on my team,” said Matt Tumbleson, founding creative director of the in-house agency, on how they managed to stay culturally relevant. “We were able to know what our customers were reading and talking about. We took that directly from social and applied it to ads and sent them out the door instantly.”

Cranking out some 40 social posts per week went quickly because the team relied on stock images from providers like iStock. “They’re quick and they’re cheap, and when you do something for social you want it done in 30 minutes,” he said. “The thought of doing a photo shoot for social, it’s just never going to happen. You’re going to miss the opportunity.”


Meanwhile, display and offline ads relied on a bit more production ingenuity. Tumbleson asked his photographer to shoot beautiful food on a simple, repeating background — a checkerboard tablecloth or wood grain, for example. In doing so, the team was able to erase and reposition the food strategically in post-production without losing the natural look of the shadows on the background.

“A station domination, which normally takes six months, I did in a weekend because of the way we had our photos set up. We could move things around really, really easily,” Tumbleson said.

Call in reinforcements

To promote the Moon Tower Comedy and Oddity Festival, a pro-bono account, Austin-based agency Proof Advertising planned to wrap as many bathroom stalls in Austin in clear vinyl covered with jokes and doodles.

But the graffiti elements had to be hand-drawn to appear authentic. With no budget for manpower, they recruited from the office.

“We had everyone in the agency doing Sharpie drawings in the bathroom, graffiti-style,” said Craig Mikes, creative director at Swift. “Somebody had to go out and measure all the stalls in all these bathrooms. It wouldn’t be funny or even noticeable if it was just a couple of them. We had to just dominate every stall in the bathrooms everywhere you turned near the festival.”

It worked. Fans and locals tweeted and Instagrammed the low-tech ads, often tagging the comedians themselves.


“The comics didn’t even know it was there,” said Mikes. “They started seeing their faces on bathroom urinals and stuff like that. They started to tweet it out: ‘No idea what this is, but we’re heading to Austin.’”

Cast the couch

DiMassimo Goldstein had a different challenge when helping to launch online supermarket service FreshDirect in Philadelphia this year. “The client did not put up a budget for anything like a normal shoot, and we had to create something that would serve as our key video asset in all of our digital channels.”

Affording a good cast would be a challenge.

“We needed a really charismatic core actor who would be a zero on a scale of one to ten for cost,” said DiMassimo. “So our lead actor in the spot was a shopping cart.”

The cart plays the role of a spurned ex-boyfriend who stalks a woman who has begun her new relationship with Fresh Direct. “We really brought it to life.” By using a prop to play one of three central characters, they were able to cut casting expenses by a third.

Don’t be afraid to go a little retro

Agency creatives don’t dream of working on their first actuarial services account. But when School of Thought took on client Milliman, they saw an opportunity to create cool on the cheap.

It started with an audience insight: “For the people who are trying to figure out retirement nowadays, it’s crazily difficult,” said Joe Newfield, the agency’s associate creative director and co-founder.

In fact, it was harder than rocket science. Using archival footage depicting the complex workings of a space shuttle launch, they created a series of pre-roll and banner ads that conveyed just that.

“There’s something about content like that that’s very compelling,” Newfield said of the cost-saving archive material. “And if you can make it fit so it’s not shoehorned in, and there seems to be a real concept, you can get pretty good results.

“It catches your eye because it’s not slick, it’s not produced. Not being able to produce stuff doesn’t mean that you have to have work that looks generic.”

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