Q&A With The VCU Brandcenter


By thelaegotist / /

The VCU Brandcenter is one of the leading advertising graduate programs in the country — an alma mater to some of the most recognized and respected names in the industry, a go-to for top recruiters, and a hotbed for driven young talent seeking both careers and entrepreneurial ventures in and around the marketing, advertising, tech and creative arenas. Since launching its graduate program over 20 years ago, the Brandcenter’s purpose has remained “to create an elite force of the world’s best creative problem solvers.” And no matter how much the industry has changed, and continues to evolve, the one constant that will no doubt remain is the need for strong creative problem solvers.

We tapped into the Brandcenter faculty across its strategy, brand management, creative, and experience design disciplines, to discuss the promise of young talent, the benefits of an ad education and how the Brandcenter keeps up with an industry that seems to shift almost daily.

Q: What is the No. 1 misconception about advertising among new students today? Has that changed from 10 years ago?  

A: One misconception might actually be coming from the industry.  It is safe to say that our students are more attune to issues of diversity and multiculturalism than the advertising industry is.  Beyond that, students are surprised by how much discussion and focus there is on making smart business decisions.  We are often involved in discussions and assignments that are farther upstream than advertising.

Q: What do you guys know about millennials that employers don’t?  

A: Because the Millennial Generation is so large, we’ve been teaching them for a number of years now.  We’ve learned that you shouldn’t generalize.  There is a lot of life experience differences between a 22 year old and a 37 year old.  Millennials tend to be close to their families, but we rarely have a helicopter parent fly in.  They don’t always expect a trophy, but if they do “miss the mark” on a project, they want to know why so that they don’t repeat that mistake.  They welcome feedback. They are not afraid to work hard or “pay their dues” but not because of some arbitrary fault of “being young”.  Life outside of work is important to them and it doesn’t mean they don’t care about work.  They are going to challenge you because they’ve grown up in a world of ever-increasing challenges.  You shouldn’t misinterpret that as disrespect or entitlement.  For obvious reasons this is also the most media savvy generation to date.  That, in turn, makes them savvy about opportunities available straight out of school.  They know that there is much more out there than advertising when it comes to careers in creativity.  They are interested in design, politics, NGOs, and tech.  Many of them are planning to start their own business, if they haven’t already.  Yes, they are drawn to advertising, but with this education, they aren’t beholden to it.

Q: On that note, your own recent Annual Alumni Salary Study found that a surprising number of today’s young ad execs are launching their own business. Did you see this wave of entrepreneurship coming, and are you actively preparing students to run their own business? 

A: Anecdotally, our faculty had all noticed that each year, more and more of our students have the goal of starting their own businesses one day. To quantify the entrepreneurial trend, we asked several questions about entrepreneurship in our Alumni Salary Survey. We learned that 77% of our alums have considered starting their own thing. That was shockingly high to us. We thought it’d be more like 30-40%. From the survey, we also saw that the interest in entrepreneurship was high across ALL tracks/disciplines. And, that our alums at the junior and mid-level were already considering it. (We’d assumed it’d be the senior-level alums who were thinking of taking the plunge!) 

Agencies need to understand that most of our students/alums no longer have the goals of spending their entire careers in the agency world moving up the ladder from jr AD to AD to ACD to CD to GCD to CCO. We see our alums using the experience, skills, and connections they garner from the Brandcenter + working in advertising for a few years and then applying all of that to their own business idea. We talk so much about creative problem solving and when you look at the companies our alums have started, they all identified a problem and then solved for it creatively. Here are some examples of those companies and the problems they solved.

Skillshare – The traditional online learning model doesn’t work for creators.

Klink – Driving to the ABC store is a pain/  takes time and effort.

Shine Craft Vessels. – Beer growlers are functional but not beautiful.

Old Tom Foolery – Funny, sarcastic, well-designed greeting cards are hard to find

Roaring Pines – American-made goods are cool and should be celebrated.

Good Run Research – Traditional consumer qualitative research methods are antiquated and ineffective.

No Phone – People are addicted to their cell phones. (While this was created as a joke, it turned into a real business quickly – they were on Shark Tank and have fulfilled thousands of orders + they had retailers like Brookstone and Spencer’s reaching out.)

Q: Advertising is one of those industries that many people insist is better learned on the job than in a classroom. What would an aspiring creative or account executive learn in a place like Brandcenter that they wouldn’t in an ad agency?  

A: Many of our faculty most likely started in this industry when it did feel “apprenticeship-like”.  The 15% commission model allowed agencies to staff at all levels and eager juniors learned by observing and following the lead of their managers.  Brandcenter is the best program to offer that “on the job”-like experience, coupled with the actual on the job opportunity of an industry internship between the two years.

Q: Last year’s AEF study on the ad industry’s talent drain found that schools “cannot keep pace with the rapid change going on in the industry.” Is that a fair assessment, and if so, what changes are you making to address the situation?  

A: Unlike a more traditional academic model, we have the unique the ability to modify curriculum topics, course work, and projects with a speed that is on-pace with the industry.  We work very closely with the industry itself through our alums and our advisory board and also typically have anywhere from 5-8 intensive projects per semester that are given to us directly by agencies and corporate clients.

Q:  As educators for a rapidly evolving industry, how do you know when to incorporate a new technology into your curriculum? 

A: We pride ourselves on our practical approach, and that means staying on top of how the “practical” is changing over time. We know our curriculum has to be more agile than traditional academic programs allow and we’re able to easily evolve & adapt like the industry itself.

When it comes to software and hardware tools, our students have access to the tools of the industry — from social listening with Crimson Hexagon, to syndicated consumer data with Simmons, to VR development technology, to prototyping equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters.  

The industry itself is our most powerful resource when it comes to staying at the leading edge.  Our students and faculty are continually interacting with people from agencies and brands through mentorship programs, a weekly speaker series, project work with “live clients” and the continued involvement and feedback from our alumni in day-to-day Brandcenter life.

In the past year, our students have done work with brands like Lexus, The St. Regis Hotel chain, Microsoft, Uniqlo, Airbnb, AT&T and Spotify.  That’s not to mention the agencies and other individual visitors from places like IDEO, W-K, R/GA, Venables Bell and Droga5.

A key thread through it all is our faculty, comprised of practitioners, not academics.  We stay sharp through our continued work in the business.  There’s no better way.

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