Small businesses competed against some of the world's biggest agencies at this year’s D&AD awards, winning across categories including Sound Design, Magazine Design and Branding. We spoke to the founders and leaders at some of these companies about what it really takes for a small business to take on the heavyweights and beat them.
Passion projects always have an edge
Buffalo Zine’s Editor David Uzquiza says the magazine started based on a shared passion, which was poured into everything they did from the first issue. He met fellow Editor and Co-founder Adrián González-Cohen at university, where they bonded over their love of fashion magazines – a shared interest that grew into the fashion and culture magazine Buffalo Zine. “It started as a hobby,” says Uzquiza. “Around 2010, Adrian said, ‘I'm thinking of starting a magazine. Do you want to design it?’ And I said sure, because I've always admired Adrian a lot, and I think he has a very, very great mind. So it was very nice to work with a friend and create something productive.”
The success of Buffalo Zine, which won a Pencil for its inaugural issue and went on to win Pencils for almost every year of its decade-long existence, is largely down to the creative realisation it was able to make when commercial objectives were not part of the equation. Uzquiza says, “The moment there isn’t a client in the formula, everything becomes more enjoyable. Some people might not think like me; some people might get really excited about a client, but for me, it puts pressure and I don't work well under pressure.”
Chris Didlick, Director and Sound Designer at Box of Toys Audio – which won a Wood Pencil for Sound Design on Axl Le’s short film Vincent at the 2021 D&AD Awards – agrees that passion projects often result in more thoughtfully crafted work. Didlick says he loves “artistic projects with artists that we like, where we get to experiment more and have a bit more freedom,” noting that, “it's funny how these projects ended up winning.” Le is one of Didlick’s long-term clients, but Vincent was a non-commercial passion project. “It was a non-commercial thing in the sense that it was something we just did together,” says Didlick.
Build a whole world around you
The small business founders we spoke to have all found ways to build worlds around them, creating a mythology that belies their small stature. For Chris Lane, founder of Leapling Films, who were shortlisted at this year’s awards for their logo, this meant using a unique personal experience to build a narrative for his brand. Lane tapped into his identity as a ‘leap year baby’ to set his brand apart and make it more memorable. Design agency Face37 helped him do this by designing a logo with a bright green frog (the symbol of the Leap Year) that Lane says always sticks in people’s minds. He says, “A lot of competitors are all quite bland, in that they all stick to more corporate [branding], and this [Leapling Film’s logo] is just a bit more fun. Being a Leap Year baby, you're slightly different in a way, so it's kind of standing out from the crowd that kind of fits that narrative.”
Uzquiza and his team build worlds too for Buffalo Zine, but they do it by adopting a new theme for every issue of their magazine. Going further than many magazines do for themed issues, this includes everything from reimagining the editorial regular features, to changing the format, design and even the paper. “We change everything with every issue... it's a whole new world,” says Uzquiza. Changing processes with every issue can get stressful, but Buffalo manages it because their smaller team is nimble enough to pivot if things go wrong. Uzquiza also credits Buffalo Zine’s success to continually reinventing itself with each issue. “Apparently, we do it [radically changing for each new issue theme] in a way that keeps people engaged and interested. So I think that's our biggest selling point,” he says.
Invest in building a platform for your brand
For small businesses, one of the best ways to attract better talent and clients is to earmark some budget to get their work on platforms such as festivals, awards (like D&AD, for example) and showcases. Lane says he manages to work with the best teams on smaller budgets by always getting his (and in turn their) work seen by larger audiences. One of the ways in which he does this is by sending his films to festivals.
Lane says, “People work on films, especially low budget films, because they want them to be seen.” Since festivals can quickly become very expensive, he spends a portion of his time researching and strategically applying to festivals with prize money. “All the festivals look at other festivals too,” says Lane. So if you're successful in one or two, then it gives it momentum.”