Changing Course

Frank Gregory, a 22-year-old Virginia Tech marketing graduate, just completed orientation at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Adcenter. Gregory, who aspires to get into agency or brand management, is one of eight students beginning the first Creative Brand Management concentration offered at the two-year graduate program in Richmond, Va. Last year, the 10-year-old advertising school, which offers a master’s degree in Mass Communications, added a Creative Media Planning track to its curriculum, which already included copywriting, art direction and strategic planning. “I was somewhat concerned about being the first in the track,” he says, but he was reassured by Charlie Kouns, a strategy professor, who told him it’s “the newest trend in advertising.”

Agency creatives have long griped about the lack of creative understanding on the side of the client and agency management, and in an education business that is as competitive as the industry that spawned it, the new track hopes to offer future business leaders an alternative to the standard M.B.A. “Nobody is teaching potential clients how to look at things creatively,” says managing director Rick Boyko. While business schools such as Stanford University and Kellogg School of Management are adding creative courses to their programs, he says, none offers a comprehensive agency-like educational environment such as Adcenter.

“We’re not a portfolio school. We are a master’s program that is teaching the business of advertising and bringing new creative thinking to the business of branding,” says Boyko, a 14-year-veteran of Ogilvy & Mather who left his dual position as chief creative officer of North America and co-president of the New York office to join VCU in 2003. “Creative students will understand the thinking [of] brand managers and media people much more than they would have otherwise … and vice versa. If it works, that’s the end goal.”

A respected, high-profile creative director whose agency career included tenures at Chiat/Day and Leo Burnett, Boyko appeared to be easing into the pipe-smoking world of education. Instead, Boyko, 57, has spent the last two and a half years working hard to transform VCU Adcenter, which has largely been perceived as a dressed-up portfolio school (a master’s degree and university pedigree already give it a weight other two-year programs like The Creative Circus or Portfolio Center don’t have).

“I could have stayed at Ogilvy … made lots of money and done a few more things that might have helped some of our clients,” says Boyko, explaining how he made his life-changing decision, accelerated in part by the events of Sept. 11. “But, hopefully, creating the Harvard of advertising is a bigger thing to leave behind than another ad.”

It is a lofty goal that is testing Boyko’s skills as not only a teacher and business manager, but fundraiser and diplomat. But, if there is anyone qualified to do that, say his colleagues, it is Boyko. “Rick is a person who makes things happen,” says Mike Hughes, president of The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va. “He is a force of nature.”

Hughes has been chairman of the school’s board since its inception in 1995, when Adcenter director emeritus Diane Cook-Tench first launched the program with a board of directors that included the late Jay Chiat, Dan Wieden, Burt Manning and David Wheldon. The goal then, as it is now, was to create strong ad professionals who could hit the ground running at their first agency jobs.

“We wanted thought leaders,” says Cook-Tench, who as creative supervisor at The Martin Agency, was often faced with the unpleasant task of having to let go of young talent. “They knew how to make an ad but not in a real environment. Their books might look fabulous, but they didn’t really understand the pressures of the ad business.”

With professors such as Coz Cotzias, a former copywriter at New York agencies such as Scali, McCabe, Sloves and Ammirati & Puris, and Jelly Helm, creative director at Wieden + Kennedy, the school quickly gained a reputation for best mirroring the pressure-cooker environment of agency life and began racking up the awards. But by 2003, when Boyko joined, “it had started going down a different path,” a more academic one, says Cook-Tench. “The university had an inclination toward people with a heavy academic background,” adds Hughes. “Rick was different. He is a major industry figure.”

While some doubt that an agency type can excel in the bureaucratic world of academia, Yahoo!’s Jerry Shereshewsky says the changes Boyko has made are already significant, particularly overhauling the curriculum to stress the idea that creativity comes in many shapes and sizes, not just TV and print. “What he’s been able to do in less than two years is nothing short of extraordinary,” he says. And he’s done it by “sheer force of will,” he adds, and “a willingness to be a hard-ass.”

One of Boyko’s first moves was inviting greater industry participation. He expanded Adcenter’s board from 15 to 36 members, adding executives from disciplines such as production, digital design and entertainment content. Like the young Creative Media Planning track, which attempts to close the gap between creative and media created by unbundling, and the newest management track, classes were also revamped to better reflect industry demands. “Portfolio Development” first changed to “Non-Traditional Campaigns” and is now “Brand Campaigns”; “Ad Layout and Typography” was changed to “Visual Concepts and Execution”; and “Broadcast Development and Production” became “New Media.” “The students need to be in front of the curve,” says Boyko. “If we need to change the curriculum every semester, that’s what we’re going to do. So far, we’ve changed pieces of it every semester.”

Don Just, a former CEO of The Martin Agency who leads the brand management track, says Adcenter has “shifted from a craft place to a true graduate school, where the students will wind up not only with a terrific book … but with a whole set of other dynamics that will equip them to assume leadership positions.”

Mark Fenske, who has been teaching at VCU since 2000, stresses, “What’s unusual here is that in a university setting, the students are being taught by a full-time faculty made of people who have demonstrated mastery of their craft and who are still working in the business.” Fenske, who is also a board member of The Creative Circus in Atlanta and Wieden + Kennedy 12 and maintains a relationship with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., says, “In most every other university … both graduate and undergraduate studies are thoroughly academic, which, to me, is no way to learn a craft. You can’t lecture a person into greatness in the creation of anything.”

Creative directors are noticing a difference. Ty Montague, co-president of JWT in New York, says the books he’s been seeing from VCU since Boyko’s arrival demonstrate more non-traditional thinking than the average student portfolio. “They are much more integrated in their approach,” he says. “It’s obvious these kids are thinking about brands and expressions of those brands in more experiential ways.”

The collaborative experience they get in school, sometimes on real client assignments, gives students a desirable advantage, adds John Butler, co-creative director of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in Sausalito, Calif. “They seem to attack things as agencies would,” says Butler, who hired copywriter Lyle Yetman, a graduate of the class of 2004, when he saw his Atlantic City campaign in his portfolio. “He did a 360 thing around the product. He gets that there is a bigger thing than one ad.”

While board member Bob Greenberg of R/GA, says he’s witnessed much progress in the evolution of the curriculum, Boyko still “has a way to go” in attaining his Harvard goal. “The bigger issue that he faces is that advertising isn’t thought of as a desirable profession by a lot of people,” he says. Still, Hank Richardson, president of Portfolio Center in Atlanta, appreciates Boyko’s passion for change. “He knows that the world today demands innovative ideas and action and that, in a global economy, advertising is not merely important—but a critical advantage. Rick understands that sweeping change are in order. Small, incremental progress won’t cut it,” he says. “It takes moving things to the mountaintop.”