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A Way of Life: Profiling the VCU Brandcenter

Posted on April 11, 2013 and read 9,772 times

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brendan A Way of Life: Profiling the VCU BrandcenterBrendan Watson
Director of Education
Art Directors Club

Looking out over the Manhattan skyline, Chris Martin asks his friends a question common for someone his age: “What should I do with my life?” He’s standing on the balcony of a suave corporate apartment on loan to a friend in the middle of an internship in New York. Given the meandering path that led Chris to that life-changing conversation, it’s an honest question.

IMG 1999 A Way of Life: Profiling the VCU Brandcenter

The years prior had Chris exploring his options. At one point destined to make his millions on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Chris was majoring in International Business, with a minor in Japanese. This was followed by a stay in a Swiss mountainside retreat. Described by Chris as a cross between a commune and a hostel, he spent most of his time within the on-site library consuming books of the philosophical and theological variety. This time of solitude seemed to clarify his path, at least for a moment, when he enrolled in seminary with the hopes of completing a PhD in theology. However, soon thereafter he switched his focus to media arts at the University of South Carolina. Upon completion he took a job as a School District Secretary. Less than pleased with his vocation, he wondered aloud, “What should I do with my life?”

Surrounded by the people that knew him best, Chris and his friends began to brainstorm possible career options. They created a list, which spanned from writer all the way to Intellectual Property Attorney. One thing that they all came back to was the suggestion of advertising copywriter. Feeling that it was worth exploring, Chris reached out to friends of friends who were in the business. Upon their suggestion he picked up the books Hey Whipple and Pick Me. He also started to look into The Creative Circus and VCU Brandcenter.

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The Brandcenter has a notoriously long application. Interested candidates are peppered with essay questions, writing assignments, self-analysis and industry critique. Chris’s contact suggested he attempt to the application. If he actually completed it and enjoyed the process, they said, it was a good sign. Chris tackled the daunting application and amongst other things was asked to write a short story featuring a really strong antagonist, and to discuss the most significant events of the past year. He enjoyed the process and was subsequently accepted into the copywriting track.

Chris’s story about arriving to the Brandcenter is similar to other students in that it is completely unique. No two stories about finding VCU are the same. John Birney, a student in the Creative Technology track, spent two years in Washington doing political advertising. Hunter Pechin also did time in the nation’s capital working on political fundraising before enrolling in the Creative Brand Management track. Sam Cantor, a former t-shirt company owner/neuroscience major, was en route to taking his volleyball career pro, before an injury eventually lead him into the Art Direction track. Then there’s Sloane Beaver who interned at a Richmond ad agency before finding her way into the Brandcenter’s Communication Strategy track. There seems to be no direct route to the school, and this is a good thing.

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The Brandcenter program is a graduate program offering students a Masters of Business. It is this distinction that separates VCU, at least on the surface, from other competing schools. It is also an element that seems to attract a more varied pool of applicants.

You don’t have to go too far back into the history of advertising to find a time when portfolio schools didn’t exist. ‘How’d You Get In?’ was a recurring column on, where notable creatives such as Neil French, Steve Hayden and Lee Garfinkel were asked how they got into advertising. No two stories were alike and the only commonality was that they all lived a life outside of advertising before getting their start in the business. Not unlike those roaming the halls of the Brandcenter. The only difference is that these creatives will get some formal training to compliment their life experiences before starting their career.

IMG 1990 A Way of Life: Profiling the VCU Brandcenter

There’s a lot presently going on at the Brandcenter, however that’s nothing new. Fluidity and flexibility was built into the DNA of the school by former Director Rick Boyko. He was known for changing and updating the curriculum on an almost yearly basis in order to keep pace with the constantly evolving industry.

After eight years, Boyko stepped down as Director as the VCU Brandcenter and in May 2011, the school set out to hire for what Board Member and Martin Agency President Mike Hughes referred to as “the most important job in advertising.” Filling Boyko’s position was a difficult task at best, and filling his shoes would be even more challenging. After a lengthy search, including a campaign rooted in social media, the committee tasked with finding Boyko’s replacement had a list of thirty candidates. That list was then discussed and debated until it was reduced to a manageable six.

The building that houses the Brandcenter is notable and historic. In 2008, the school moved in after a massive renovation. The reimagined building was designed by internationally renowned architect Clive Wilkinson, who has designed spaces for Google, TBWA/Chiat/Day, Mother and JWT. However the building was originally built as the carriage house for the historic Jefferson Hotel, located two blocks away. So it seems fitting that the final interviews for the Brandcenter Director, whose future office will be surrounded by horse and buggy elevator relics, took place within a conference room at The Jefferson itself.

The search committee met with all six candidates over the course of a Saturday and in the end one name rose to the top, Helayne Spivak. Much like her predecessor, she has an agency background. Most recently as Chief Creative Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, Spivak has also held leadership positions at Hal Riney & Partners, Y&R New York, Ammirati & Puris and JWT, New York. She has a diverse background, at one point in her career owning a 274-seat fine-dining Italian restaurant in Chicago’s Northbrook neighborhood, later spending some time doing stand-up comedy. Spivak claims the former was fodder for the latter.

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After six months in her new job Spivak talks about feeling more alive than ever. It’s a new kind of challenge that she relishes. The Brandcenter brings with it agency-size responsibilities, without the client-size pressures. Molding the minds of future industry leaders is no small task, however there’s no fear of a client walking out the door, nor the large-scale layoffs that accompany that all-too-common scenario.

Spending the better part of her career in high-level leadership positions had put some distance between Spivak and the work. It appears to be a refreshing change to be in an academic environment where she’s able to get her hands dirty. She’s never been closer to the work, she says, and feels especially plugged into the creative world.

In speaking with Spivak, it becomes clear that she has a huge amount of respect not only for the Brandcenter and what it has achieved up until this point, but for its future potential. Founded as the VCU Adcenter in 1996, the school then made it’s mark by producing some of the most well rounded advertising and marketing communications graduates. In 2008, the name was changed to the Brandcenter. As Rick Boyko explained at the time, “Today’s advertising industry has evolved into the business of developing a brand’s total communication, influencing everything from strategic plans and message content to the creation of advertising, the retail environment, packaging, Web sites, word-of-mouth messaging and public relations. It is this change in marketing communications that drove us to put brand building front and center in everything we do.” Spivak talks about the onset of the second creative revolution and takes pride in the schools positioning and ability to keep pace. She jokes about the need to change the name yet again, this time to the Braincenter. Given the type of thinking going on within the walls of the old carriage house, it’s not such a crazy idea.

IMG 1984 A Way of Life: Profiling the VCU Brandcenter

The students are now thinking bigger, Spivak says, and that’s because their toolbox has grown. Given the speed at which technology evolves, and the information and resources available, what was an overly complicated task a few years ago is easily executed today.

The Brandcenter offers five distinct areas of study, all of which are taught collaboratively: Art Direction, Copywriting, Communication Strategy, Creative Brand Management and Creative Technology. The Brandcenter added the fifth track, CT as it is referred, at a time when some agencies hadn’t even started to employ Creative Technologists. While some schools spend their time playing catch up with the industry, VCU is anticipating the needs of tomorrow.

From day one, the school has served the industry well, creating a pipeline of topnotch talent for agencies and brands alike. While this will remain its core objective, one can’t ignore the inevitable possibility of start-ups starting up at the Brandcenter. Given the five available tracks, it’s something that will organically happen, if it isn’t already. Spivak discusses the desire to graduate creative entrepreneurs. The collaborative nature of the environment will foster the development of future start-ups, but it’s the technology and resources available to the students at the Brandcenter that will bring these ideas to life.

There aren’t any classrooms in the basement of the Brandcenter. You’ll find meeting rooms, workspaces, a ping-pong table and the biggest concrete table you’ve ever seen. It’s a free flowing design, not unlike a pool winding through Caribbean resort. A series of studios and computer labs sit opposite the table and they’re outfitted with the latest and greatest equipment and software. However, what’s more impressive than the up-to-date gear, is the availability of resources not taught in the classroom. While some institutions might struggle to stay current on the hardware and software taught in class, Brandcenter students have the opportunity to explore technology outside of the curriculum such as Adobe After Effects and Cinema 4D. When you take this into account, along with the highly accomplished teachers who take a tough love approach, and the constantly evolving curriculum, you start to see how the Brandcenter is able to get so much out of each and every student. Finally factoring in that their graduation rate nears 100% every year, it becomes all the more impressive.

IMG 2008 A Way of Life: Profiling the VCU Brandcenter

After spending a few days at the Brandcenter I packed up my computer and headed out the door. I was supposed to fly home that night, but Mother Nature was being uncooperative. However, the southern hospitality that infuses the school meant that I wasn’t alone as I waited out my two-day delay. Offers from students and faculty alike made my extended stay that much more comfortable.

It’s Friday afternoon at around 6:00. Chris Martin is sitting inside the iconic cocoon—a unique structure that sections off the large main room with the push of a button. He, along with some fellow students, are in no rush to leave. Laughter echoes through the halls as brainstorming sessions have given way to the weekend. And as such, I leave concluding that the Brandcenter isn’t a school after all, it’s a way of life.

  • Graphic Ology

    It’s difficult to discuss the BrandCenter’s history or future without mentioning the founder, Diane Cook-Tench. I’m sure this omission was accidental, but it’s no less egregious. I would recommend this short article about how she started the AdCenter. It adds meaning and context to the article above. Yes others have contributed to the school’s success, but none of it would have been possible if not for the strong, almost unimaginable at the time, foundation built by Diane and her team. Enjoy.

  • J.D. Humphreys

    Yes! Thank you, Diane.

  • Anonymous

    Also, the renovation began in 2005. The school opened in the new location in 2008.




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