David Heinemeier Hansson

March 21, 2023

Compressing a million-dollar commercial into $37,000

Last year, we hired a high-profile ad agency to work on our first-ever branding campaign for Basecamp. They were smart, funny... and entirely out of sync with our budget. So we ended up letting them go, hiring a new head of marketing, and doing it all ourselves.

The problem was that our entire marketing budget for 2023 amounted to a "mere" five million dollars. That's a huge multiple of everything we've ever spent before on marketing in the entire 24-year history of the company, but a pittance when you work with a top-tier agency full of people who used to do campaigns for the like of Apple or Nike.

Of course this is all on us. While the agency knew what our budget was going in, we should have known that working with people who'd done work with the biggest, richest corporations in the world wouldn't adapt well to our comparably modest constraints. But it wasn't until we saw the proposal for the first video commercial that it really sunk in. The agency wanted to spend one million dollars on a thirty-second spot, which, while funny and clever, involved renting an actual wind tunnel for a couple of days. You know, those facilities used by Formula 1 teams and aerodynamicists.

A rule of thumb for marketing, I believe it's something like you should spend 4-5 times as much on placement as production, so if we spent one million dollars on shooting the commercial, we'd literally have to spend the rest of the budget on running just that one spot. That didn't seem smart.

Enter Glenn, our new head of marketing, and Chad, our visual storyteller. Together they came up with a new idea for a different brand commercial, did everything from storyboarding to location scouting to shooting to editing themselves, and in just a few weeks produced our amazingly well-received first commercial for a total all-in budget of $37,000.

That's more like us. No, it didn't have a freaking wind tunnel, but it was just as funny of a concept, even more on point for fit with the marketing message, and the final result looks every bit as ace to my eyes as anything you'd see produced at 10-20x the budget.

That's the 37signals way

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.