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VCU Brandcenter’s Recruiter Sessions 2011

Posted on May 31, 2011 and read 10,551 times

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brettcreditpic VCU Brandcenters Recruiter Sessions 2011Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

ihaveanidea, and by extension you, the loyal reader, has enjoyed a long standing friendship with the VCU Brandcenter, arguably the best school in the world for advertising hopefuls. One of the coolest things about our partnership is that we often get invited to the school for various events. The Brandcenter is so inspiring a place that no matter what the event is, it’s worth the trip down to Richmond, VA. Luckily the events tend to be just as exciting as the school itself. (Hello? Neville Brothers anyone?)

Last year I had the opportunity to attend one such event, the school’s annual Recruiter Sessions. It’s a two-day event where the Brandcenter’s soon-to-be grads showcase their work for dozens of creative directors, agency recruiters and independent headhunters. I had already been to the Brandcenter a number of times prior to this, so I already knew these kids were good, but the 2010 Recruiter Sessions took it to a whole new level. I won’t go into a lot of detail here (that’s what links to past articles are for!) but imagine an event that’s part art exhibit and part science fair, where CDs and recruiters aren’t only there to see what you can do, they are jockeying for position to offer you dream jobs.

So when the 2011 edition of the VCU Brandcenter Recruiter Sessions came around several weeks ago, I knew I was keen on attending. I mean, I’m not shopping my portfolio around or doing any hiring, but just being there and observing all of the action is inspiring, and the excitement is infectious. My only concern was how was I going to write about it afterwards. After all, how different could it be from last year?

The answer: quite different indeed, and I think last year’s article might’ve even contributed to that.

You see, the Brandcenter Recruiter Sessions are off-limits to students in the first year of the program; only the second years who are about to graduate get to rub shoulders with all of the agency honchos. In fact the Year One students aren’t even allowed in the building while their Year Two counterparts set up their displays. This means that the Year Ones have very little sense of what they’ll be getting into when it’s their turn the following year. Yeah, there are some whispered stories about what goes on, but for the most part, they are kinda in the dark. This year, thanks to the Brandcenter giving me the okay to do last year’s story, all of the students had a far better understanding of what was in store for them.

This understanding was evident from the moment I stepped in the building the night before the official start. When I had done this last year, I was treated to a sea of chaos, as the students were scrambling to get everything together. There was lots of literal running around, a screamed profanity about once every two and a half minutes, and even a handful of people on the verge of tears. This all sounds worse than it really was, and nobody was jumping off the roof screaming “goodbye, cruel school,” but it was apparent that most everyone could’ve used some extra time to get things just right.

By contrast, the students of the 2011 class were almost Zen-like in their preparation. The sun hadn’t even fully set and most of the displays were already complete and their owners contemplating getting a good night’s rest before the big day. The stations were no less intricate than last year – one Creative Technologist had even hauled in a full sized motorcycle as part of his display -  yet there was an eerie calm that just wasn’t there last year. I asked a few of the students about this, and to my surprise, many of them cited last year’s story as one of the reasons they were so well prepared. Mind you, they also told me that there were classmates intending to come in at 3 AM to work on their displays, so I imagine I missed some of that electric cursing I was hoping for.

Regardless of how well prepared the class of 2011 was for the Recruiter Sessions, the same hopes, fears and anxieties that you’d find in any ad school exist inside each student. In the hours and minutes before the official start of the Recruiter Sessions – when the students must leave the building for several hours and let the recruiters browse their work and displays without them – I managed to snag a number of nervous faces to share exactly what they were feeling.

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The other big difference with this year’s Recruiter Sessions was simply the sheer number of CDs and recruiters on hand. If they were buzzed about this event last year, they were in full throttled excitement mode this time around. You had top-notch Cali shops like AKQA and Goodby in San Fran and TBWA\Chiat\Day and 180 in LA; you had Big Apple hot spots such as Saatchi, Ogilvy, McGarryBowen and The Barbarian Group. The Windy City was very well represented by the likes of Leo Burnett, DDB, Cramer-Krasselt and DraftFCB. Boston, Detroit, Dallas, Minneapolis, even cities that don’t normally spring to mind such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, Rochester, New York and Columbus, Ohio were in attendance, not to mention our Canadian friends at Sid Lee. Big agencies, small agencies, multinationals, boutiques, some from as far away as Hawaii, while others as near as a quick cab ride. All in all, there were nearly 200 people in attendance, and with an almost 2:1 recruiter to student ratio, that meant it wasn’t just going to be crowded, the competition was going to be fierce.

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The first part of the Sessions, when the CDs and recruiters get to go through all of the work for a few hours before meeting the students, was quite sedate. Many of the attendees have arrived with an agenda, not only to look for certain roles to fill within their agencies, but to look for specific people they’ve heard about in advance. All of the students’ personal websites were made available to the recruiters in advance, and some of their class projects had generated so much real-world buzz. This meant that the attendees already knew the work; now they wanted to meet the people behind it.

Last year, much of the excitement amongst the recruiters was focused on the VCU Brandcenter’s new Creative Technology program; 2010 was the first graduating class, and everybody wanted to know what the heck they were all about. This year the CT students were still hot topics, but not just because of what they were, but also because what they’ve created. And nothing seemed to draw more attention than a quirky little invention: a Twitter activated gumball machine. All anybody had to to was send a tweet from their phones with the hashtag #ilovebrandcenter, and that would instantly trigger a motor to send a gumball careening down a series of Rube pipes and tubes and land in a dish for the Twitterer to enjoy. Of course once the word got out, tweets were coming in from all over the place, with gum being triggered by people on the other side of the planet. But hey, it definitely got the Brandcenter’s name across the Twitterverse!

The “recruiters only” portion of the day was pretty relaxed, with many attendees chatting with their “competitors”; you’d be amazed to see how many recruiters from different agencies are actually good friends who openly recommend talent they can’t or don’t need to hire in the near future. But once mid-afternoon hits and the students return to sit by their stations, it becomes all business. Because there are far more recruiters than students – and throw in the fact that a handful of students have already accepted job offers and are only there to show off their goods and lend support to their peers – getting in front of the kids you wish to meet most is a game not for the meek-mannered.

The action that unfolds before your eyes after the students return is a sight to behold. You’ll see CDs actually standing in line to meet a young creative, while others are busy sending texts and emails to students in order to arrange a few moments with a particular student over the next day and a half. Some larger agencies send a whole team of people to the Brandcenter in order to divide and conquer the rooms, while one-person teams bite the bullet and decide who is most crucial to meet with, since it’s impossible to meet with everyone. You witness CDs extolling the virtues of their agencies, trying to get a student who might not have even heard of them before this day to learn more and continue this serenade at a later date. You’ll see some recruiter walking away from a mini-meeting with a wide smile, ready to arrange plane tickets to bring a young art director or strategist out to the office, and then a minute later you’ll hear a CD ruefully admit that the copywriter he’d been trying to convince for the last twenty minutes is probably going to go to one of “those agencies.” The entire atmosphere is almost as kinetic as a stock exchange trading floor, and while fortunes aren’t really being won and lost, you get the vibe that they could be.

All of this makes it sound like it is very, very good to be in the students’ position here at the Recruiter Session. Hell, I know I wish I were a student here during an event like this!  Regardless, do not trick yourself to believe that the soon-to-be grads all have their Papal Rings out ready to be kissed. They’ve all worked extremely hard to get to this point, and they know this is no time to lean back and accept all of the fawning. There is tons of information coming their way, and it takes a cool head to process it all. They know that despite all of the attention they are getting, they ate still not even juniors, and they have lots to learn about the ad industry as they cross over into the “real world.” One thing is certain: while many of the students have “dram jobs” or “dream cities” in mind, just about everybody is open to consider and listen to every possibility out there, even if that means weeks of phone calls, emails and meetings after the Recruiter Sessions.

The first day of the Recruiter Sessions ended with a little bit of cocktail schmoozing on the Brandcenter’s patio. The beautiful weather coupled with a little beer and wine helped everybody relax and chat far more casually than inside the Sessions, but even then you could see recruiters and students lining up blocks of time for the next day.


Day Two of the Recruiter Sessions was essentially a repeat of the second half of Day One, with all-day discussions between students and CDs. It takes a very strong constitution to get through nearly eight hours of one-on-one meetings, and after a while you could see it all taking its toll on the participants, but still they soldiered on. For students, the dilemma was whether they could leave their stations to stetch their legs and chat amongst their friends, at the risk of not being there when a representative of a favorite agency shows up to speak. For the recruiters and CDs, the sands in the hourglass serve as a constant reminder of how much they set out to do versus how much they can actually achieve. By late afternoon, meetings become a quick “hey, I love your stuff, let’s chat next week” and an exchange of business cards before moving onto the next person.

By the time 5 PM rolls around, it’s impossible to hide the fact that everybody in the building is absolutely exhausted, yet very satisfied with the outcome. There’s a final series of handshakes and little “call me” hand signals, and just like that, the recruiters are out the door, looking to get some office work done at their hotels or hopping in a cab to Richmond International Airport.

The class of 2011 remains behind at the Brandcenter, and they let out a series of both cheers and sighs. They survived! The students strip down their displays – it’s class as usual in the building tomorrow, and everything needs to be put back in place. In spite of this, I managed to coax a few soon-to-be-grads to chat about the past two days.

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The last few Year Twos file out of the building, off to take much needed naps before going out to celebrate that evening. It’s all over!

And yet, it’s just begun.


So ends another year at the VCU Brandcenter’s Recruiting Sessions – bigger than my first go-around, and yet somehow calmer and more relaxed… for me at least. I bet you that both the students, rising up in the starting blocks of their advertising careers, their hearts racing a mile a minute, would tell a different story! So would the dozens upon dozens of creative directors, recruiters and other agency personnel who travelled from across the continent just to see this group of students. They looked into the eyes of the next generation of ad people and saw a passion that was contagious.

Come to think of it, I must’ve been the only calm, relaxed person in Richmond those two days.


Thanks to our friends at the VCU Brandcenter for inviting us to cover this incredible event once again. We’d also like to thank Brian Jang, First Year Communications Strategist, and Thomas Scott, First Year Art Director, for all of their help during my stay in Richmond.

ONE FINAL UPDATE: as of the end of May, 50% of the VCU Brandcenter Class of 2011 has begun work the industry. For a PDF of the websites of every 2011 grad who took part in the Recruiter Sessions, click here.




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