Written by Maya DeJoie
How do you successfully run an ad agency for 20 years? For Diane and Jorge Brunet-García, it began with “a wing and a prayer,” combining their unique skill sets, a strong alliance, and a shared vision to take more than 40 years of experience in advertising to the next level — a level that was truly their own.
From consultancy to creative agency, Diane and Jorge have spent the last 20 years building what Brunet-García would become: a full-service advertising agency with more than 50 employees in three U.S. locations, servicing highly influential public health and nonprofit clients under the mission of creating meaningful change. Their success has been measured by countless accolades, but at the root lies authenticity, hard work, passion, and the notion of “being disruptive” in the best way, no matter the boundaries. Their work of doing what they love in support of the causes they love has only evolved positively over 20 years, echoing through BG’s culture, work, and overall impact.
As BG continues to grow, Diane and Jorge look forward to transitioning away from the day-to-day and taking time to travel. They now serve as the agency’s Board Co-Chairs, passing their leadership reigns to a new team that sits at the helm of BG and continues to take their vision to new heights. To honor their vision, hard work, and legacy, we’ve asked them to reflect on the last 20 years in this latest Conversations That Matter.
How did you decide to go into business together and start Brunet-García?
Diane: When we were living in Atlanta, we did some freelance work together, and at one point called ourselves “Brunet & Brunet.” What brought us to Florida was a job that Jorge took, and then we got away from working together for a number of years. I thought, together, we could capitalize on unique skills that we each brought to the table that would allow us to do something together again and do it on a larger and more relevant scale. With Jorge being Hispanic and having dual language capabilities, it was even more apparent that there was an opportunity. He has been on the art side, and early on, I was on the writing side. It was always a good alliance because we did slightly different things. Those, to me, were the main dynamics and just a time in our lives when we were ready to focus on our vision and not someone else’s.
Jorge: For me, after working so many years in advertising, you realize that this business eats its young. It’s very competitive where you have to climb over somebody else’s back in order to get to a higher rung on the ladder, and that has been my experience for over 40 years. When we first got to Jacksonville, it was not very diverse. You never heard anyone speaking Spanish. Now, the number of minorities in the metropolitan area is much higher than when we first got here. So, that makes a big difference. We thought about using the Hispanic connection as something that opened doors, but we ultimately decided that we needed to be diverse in order to best reach all the underserved communities. So, we started reaching out to different people who were culturally in tune. For example, some of our earliest employees were Filipino Americans who brought a different perspective, and little by little, we learned to get to where we are.
“We always envisioned Brunet-García as not just a workplace but as a place to learn and grow both professionally and personally in an environment where there is encouragement and support to allow you to go beyond your comfort zone.” – Jorge
What was your vision for starting and staffing BG?
Diane: We started with the vision of being good, strong consultants, offering services that we know how to do in this marketplace. We wanted to leverage that to sustain us and our family, and we wanted to do what we loved. What we became was definitely not on my horizon.
Jorge: When we first started, we worked with construction businesses and did some branding projects. Eventually, we ended up with a lot of health and government work, but it was a natural progression as far as attracting people to work with us. Kedgar from Castaño Group showed up on our door one day and said he wanted to work with us. We didn’t really have the money or equipment at the time, but we took him on as an intern and eventually generated enough business to hire him. Anna Jaffee (now BG’s VP of Accounts) came as an intern in the summer while she was going to school at Florida State. She went back to school and said that she wanted to keep working for us. After she graduated, we had one position open, and Kate Jolley (now BG’s VP of Creative Operations), who also interned with us, wanted the job as well. They were both deserving of the position, and when the time came, we had generated enough capital to employ both of them. More than 10 years later, they’re best friends and now on the leadership team.
Diane: I think it was very intentional. Jorge was working on the creative concepts, and I was working on strategy knowing from the very beginning that I wanted to do health work. Our next-door neighbor was the Vice President of Research at Ogilvy. The people in our neighborhood were epidemiologists at CDC. So, I knew from the very beginning that this was the work I wanted to do. Once we started Brunet-García, it was always in my vision that somehow, someday I’m going to work with CDC.
At first, we started with construction and branding jobs because we had to survive. We had a seatbelt campaign that got us closer to the kind of change communications that we wanted to do since the focus was trying to get minority populations to buckle up because they were doing so at a much lower rate. From that moment, there was always the vision. I want to do this kind of change communications, and the prize I had my eye on was always CDC.
“Because of our heart and focus, we naturally attracted like-minded folks, and things evolved very quickly. We were very intentional about working hard, playing hard, making a difference, and taking care of each other.” – Diane
What did you learn from that very first contract that established your presence in the government sector?
Diane: When we saw an opportunity with the State of Florida for immunization through Florida SHOTS in 2003-2004, several years before we got on the CDC’s Health Communications Marketing BPA (Blanket Purchase Agreement, established by a government buyer with a contractor to fulfill recurring services), that’s when we saw where we were headed, and we’ve had that contract since. I think what it underscores is the agility to look at a project holistically and just figure it out. Luckily, Kim Vermillion (now BG’s COO) was part of the band and pivotal to putting the strategy in place that would make that happen. The contract required us to embed directly with physicians’ offices in every corner of Florida. Though we didn’t have that on our radar initially, the vast experience gained by directly marketing to healthcare providers since 2004 is clearly a differentiator for BG.
As the agency evolved, was there any particular change that was hard to navigate?
Diane: I will say there were times I felt a little exposed because I wasn’t sure we had the expertise. As people came along with new ideas, it made sense for us to hear people out and understand what their vision was. I could be a little rattled by uncertainty at times, but at our core, we are disruptors. Even when things were uncertain, there are so many people now who are part of this enterprise, and it’s motivating to be in it together and overcome the obstacles.
Jorge: There was a time early on when we faced a loss of capital in the agency that we had to overcome. We had about 12 employees at that time, and they had several choices. We could let people go or we could cut salaries. So, we decided to do a blind vote with our staff, and the majority chose to take a pay cut and spare their colleagues from losing their jobs.
When faced with challenges early on, what kept you motivated and what advice would you share for running a business?
Diane: I felt like not only were we motivated by doing important work in Jacksonville, and really around the world, but we also had this loyalty going on where we were motivated to keep our families afloat and others’ families, too. From a subject matter standpoint, we felt good about having the answers or looking at what was going on in the industry. What we didn’t have was that finance background. We eventually got the best CPA and banking relationships we could find. That was really important to the success of our business, along with good legal counsel. When you’re first starting out, nobody wants to give you the money that you need because you don’t have any money. So, securing capital in the early days was our biggest challenge, and it always will be for those who are in startup mode.
Some advice I would share is to always hire people who are smarter or better than you are, even if you have to go out on a limb to do it. We went out on a limb to get our first few hires. We didn’t necessarily have a lot of capital; we went on a wing and a prayer to make it happen, even when times felt unsure.
Jorge: I would say that though we have had our challenges over the last 20 years, we have never lost hope or considered giving up. We made it through losing a significant account, and when we made up for the loss, salaries were raised beyond where they had been in order to make up for the time we had to reduce salaries. What I would have told myself 20 years ago is: where there’s a will, there’s a way!
What factored into your decision to expand to Atlanta and Washington D.C.?
Diane: Once we were on the CDC BPA, we knew Atlanta was a given, and we sent Anna Jaffee (VP of Accounts) up to establish our roots there because we knew we needed to have a good service presence in Atlanta. We had gotten on the GSA schedule and were trying to make sales to be in D.C. as we were looking at some of the national agencies and contracts.
For a long time, I was going to D.C. once or twice a month just to be there to form and nurture relationships, as well as serve as account manager. It eventually became draining, and we knew we needed to have people in D.C. to help evolve the client base so we could better establish our presence there. We won the USDA Farm to School contract, so we needed to service that locally. Then, USFA (U.S. Fire Administration) came along, then E-Verify, and that required us to have a team in D.C.
What has been surprising about the journey so far, and what are you most proud of?
Diane: For me, we knew what we wanted to do in the beginning, and we loved it, but I was somewhat surprised that so many people shared our vision. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but we found so many like-minded folks who shared our vision, our vibe, and our wanting to change the world ethos.
Jorge: One of the biggest surprises for me was the way that people have supported each other from the very beginning. In other words, the idea has always been to go beyond your comfort zone and not worry about it. “Jump and the net will appear” is our motto because somebody will be there to give you a hand to see you through. What I never really thought about was how that way of thinking shaped the way that we bond with each other. Our company is very familial. If you’re having an emotional challenge, there will be somebody there looking after you, and it’s all very organic. It’s not like we have set out to do it this way; people simply like each other.
“It’s always been paramount to us to build our own box and push the boundaries at every opportunity. That is our ethos.” – Diane
Diane: I’m proud that we’ve pushed boundaries on every project throughout time. Eduardo (now BG’s CCO) talks about disruption inside the box. I understand the concept of disruption inside the box for certain clients that we have, but we always tried to make it as big, as impactful, as revolutionary as we want it to be, and then if we have to rein it in, we will.
I think we also get into this habit in our industry where we say that government agencies are very conservative, and I think it’s our job to say it doesn’t matter who the client is, just put forth the best idea to address the strategy. Don’t draw a box around yourself.
Jorge: I believe that, since our inception, BG has been pushing boundaries. Not only on the creative side but across strategy, media placement, account service, PR/engagement under the direction of Kimberley Collins (now BG’s CEO), etc. For me, the project that has been the most significant has been promoting storytelling around PrEP. To be able to present an option and reduce the death count for AIDS is highly significant.
How has the transition into retirement been?
Diane: The part that’s hard for me is the nostalgia, and that my life’s work has been wrapped around this for 20 years, but what an exciting place this is for the agency. We’ve been very intentional about making sure we have the right team to take it forward. There’s this visionary team of young leaders with a slightly different worldview than we have, and certainly, a better command of data and technology. They’re going to stretch, flex, and connect at a different level than we can and more worldwide than we’ve been able to do. I think the gift that we’ve given them is a really strong platform — an ethos with all of those things with which to begin. Now, they can start with that and soar. They will take the agency to far more exciting places, and it’s almost like the starting line in a way, except you start with this good foundation.
Jorge: I’ve been transitioning for a lot longer than Diane. Finding Eduardo was a godsend. It took me several trips to Miami to convince him to come over to the agency, but I did it. We have interesting ties with each other that we never realized previously from family to friends to Cuba. It’s just been incredible. When [Eduardo] came to BG, I said, “You know I’m always here to talk to you about anything you want to talk about, but this is your thing. It’s your decision. I’m not going to tell you how to do it.” So, for me, it’s been pretty easy transitioning, and I want to do a lot more traveling and take more time to visit family and friends. I think we’re on a good trajectory.
“We tackled meaningful issues that have an impact, and we didn’t lose our souls doing it. That is our legacy, and I would never want to see BG veer away from it.” – Diane
What about BG’s future are you most excited about?
Diane: I think what I look forward to seeing is the continued evolution, and what that script is going to be because other people are going to write it. Another thing that might be interesting to see is more engagement with national-level private sector companies that share the same values.
Jorge: I think the agency’s future growth will be exciting. When people take greater roles within the agency, they begin to influence its direction. For example, we’re doing a lot more illustration now than we ever have. We probably will end up doing a lot more animation than we’ve ever had. Will we ever get into film production? Who knows? It will depend on the people who are there or the people who come in the future, but I am beyond excited. We have built a team of professionals who are committed to taking BG beyond anything I would have imagined.
“I hope our legacy will be that we facilitated personal and professional growth while making this a better world.” – Jorge
What is a memorable moment in BG’s history to you?
Diane: When we won the CDC Comms BPA. That was such a good moment for the agency, and the celebrations around that were so much fun. Then, being finally able to get back together after the pandemic and to see the agency we had become, with so many people on-boarded during the lockdown. Those are moments that really stick out for me.
Jorge: For me, it was when we were asked to create 30- and 60-second spots for MAD DADS (Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder, a non-profit organization) to help combat gun violence and bring awareness to reporting criminal activity. We collaborated with Al Letson and Paul Figura and created a spot that was very effective in both raising community awareness and encouraging involvement. After airing, we decided to send it to the regional Emmy awards. About a month after we sent it, I got a phone call from a person leading the Florida chapter of the Emmys and he said, “We’ve noticed that you haven’t made a reservation for the awards celebration.” At the award ceremony, they called us as a selection winner, I went up to receive the award and didn’t even know what to say. I just took it and thanked everybody. After we sat down, our name was called again two minutes later, and we won about four to six Emmys that one time. That was a big deal.
Diane: Then, I believe the latest big moment is this transition. I’ll never forget this because we’re ready. The senior leadership team is ready. The leadership team is ready. The agency is ready, and it really coincides with BG’s 20th anniversary this year.
As Diane and Jorge lean into their next chapter, we know that it will be with pride in their accomplishments, faith in their new leaders, and excitement for the future of BG – a future that will hold their legacy tight.