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March 26, 2009
Finding Inspiration
 
I am cursed with optimism. But I’ll admit even that strength can dissolve. Maybe I should stop watching the news and stop monitoring my 401k.
 
When I got into the advertising business in 1992 many people said it was the worst moment to find a first gig, let alone any gig. That era seems like a picnic compared to today.
 
Yet, advertising is the business of optimism and the business of creativity. It is our life’s work to encourage.
 
So here’s a few thoughts, not on finding that elusive gig—because this website ought to be able to address that issue. Instead, some encouragement for the assignments that remain to be done and those who remain to address them.
 
The creative brief is not enough
You are not enough
 
Even the very best creative briefs—rare as D&AD black pencils—only supply enough nourishment to begin. You must find other reserves, either within yourself, or elsewhere, to survive the journey and produce outstanding ideas in any field.
 
Hopefully you learn this early in your career, perhaps before your career officially begins. Being creative requires a wily persistence; sustained energy that encourages yourself and others to stick with it. It also requires teamwork. Our current economic climate only magnifies the situation.
 
If you’re lucky, your teammates will dig deep and uncover, clean, sort and polish insights and data that inspire. As Jon Steele wrote in his book, Truth, Lies and Advertising, “If the creative brief is not itself creative…then its authors…have no right to expect anything different from their creative team.” And vice versa. If they give you gold, you better bring home platinum. Quarterbacks routinely reward their linemen for protecting and enabling great effort. If you benefit from such generosity, respond in kind. Memories are long. Believe me, you’ll need that fondness down the road.
 
But typically, a brief is only the very faintest of beginnings.
 
I think it was art director Khari Streeter who told me, “The role of a creative person is 80% conceptual thinking and 20% finish carpentry.” After 17 years in the game, I’d amend the distribution to include at least 20% for detective work prior to 60% conceptual thinking and that last stage of finish carpentry. You can never know enough. Because you can never know where the idea might come from.
 
There’s a reason so many advertising programs sprouted from Journalism schools. I think it’s because of curiosity, the art of questioning and the practice of research. While I only majored in Journalism for one year, I learned enough about how to find the story. If you’re handed a typically creative brief, you oftentimes need to figure out how to find the story that leads to an idea. Either there’s too much information, or not enough or it’s simply not articulated.
 
Thank you, Silicon Valley
 
How many times have you found more insight about your assignment on Google than in your brief? Let’s up the ante, though, to be fair. By “Google,” I mean Google Trends. You’ve got that bookmarked, right? How about QuantCast? We use QuantCast as much for competitive insight as anything. Have you tried the new search engines, Kosmix and Cuil? I shouldn’t even have to mention the Google Alerts you’ve set for the names and industry terms in your creative brief, right?
 
At the very least, these tools can help you verify and expand on the information in your brief; uncover contrasting insights and provoke meaningful conversation with your account, planning, media and technology partners and clients. We find answers by asking questions. If you take a creative brief at its word, and move no farther, you are robbing yourself of opportunity.
 
We’re fortunate to work in such a transparent and generous age. The average copywriter with an Internet connection has more useful data available to them instantly than most agency research departments could harness in a week of effort.
 
But don’t think you have to work alone. Advertising isn’t a solo sport. It isn’t even team beach volleyball. The purpose of data is inspiration—fuel for conversation. Our work at Hello Viking is a running discourse among the team, fired by the ongoing imaginations of our favorite bloggers and the intelligence we continue to uncover. Data inspires better messaging, more accurate media and more effective and intuitive technology.
 
Dig shallow and often, then dig deep a few times
 
Ideas are gold. Imagine you’re digging for gold in your back yard. Do you dig one, really deep hole to begin? Or hundreds of shallow holes all over the yard? I opt for the second approach, because I want to know, quickly, where the gold isn’t.
 
I think the same approach can be applied both to detective work and conceptual thinking. Quantity first, then quality. Know quickly where to research deeper as well as where not to research. Know quickly where to invest your time in finish carpentry, before you waste time polishing a turd.
 
The tools exist now to help with the first task. Your optimism and talent can help with the second.
 
Be happy
 
The advertising industry is a $30B annual ecosystem (give or take the whims of Sir Martin). Despite Veronis Suhler Stevenson’s historic predictions of a 7.4% overall decline in 2009, lots of work and opportunity remain on the table. Ever the optimist, aren’t I?
 
Unlike 1992, we’ve got more, greater and faster tools for understanding and collaboration now. More means of expressing ideas. We just need to use them.
 
Good luck out there.

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As a writer, creative director and drummer, Tim Brunelle started in advertising in 1993 after receiving a B.A. in Jazz from the University of Cincinnati. Since then, he's worked with TBWA/Chiat Day, Heater/Easdon, McKinney & Silver, Arnold Worldwide, OgilvyOne, Mullen and Carmichael Lynch. Tim now works for his own entity, Hello Viking.

Tim has provided strategic and creative leadership to A.G. Edwards, Anheuser-Busch, Brown Forman, Goodyear, Harley-Davidson, Porsche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Volkswagen.

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