For Its New Executive Director, VCU Brandcenter Taps JWT Atlanta’s Vann Graves

Departing CCO returns home to Richmond

Vann Graves, CCO at JWT Atlanta, is set to become executive director Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Brandcenter, replacing Helayne Spivak, who served in the same post since 2012.

“Along with my colleagues, I am delighted that Vann Graves is coming to VCU Brandcenter as its new executive director,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “He brings a wealth of expertise and life experience to the university. I look forward to witnessing the amazing things VCU Brandcenter faculty, staff and students will accomplish with Vann’s leadership and guidance.”

The move to the program marks a homecoming for the highly-awarded Graves who, over his career led work on high-profile brands including Shell, American Airlines, Cigna, Lockheed Martin, Coca-Cola, MasterCard, the U.S. Army, AT&T, GE, M&Ms, Snickers, Visa and others.

The Richmond native, who recently resigned his position at JWT Atlanta, will leave the agency mid-July and begin at VCU August 10.

“This isn’t the first time I thought about coming home to Richmond,” said Graves, referring to the role opening up in 2012 after the departure of then-executive director Rick Boyko. “Mike Hughes (longtime creative leader of The Martin Agency) inquired about my interest then, but I had just become group creative director at McCann (where he became vice president and creative director in 2009) and didn’t have the experiences yet. When you come to Brandcenter, you want to have those experiences so that you bring your A-game for the students. But the decision to come to Brandcenter was an easy one.”

Getting the next generation of advertising, creative and marketing professionals prepared for the rigors and changes the industry faces is an obvious priority for Graves, but with one crucial caveat.

“It’s vital to learn the craft,” he said. “And for students, faculty, and stakeholders, they need to understand our approach. It’s not simply about the output or outcome, but the process of getting there in the right way for brands.”

Brandcenter’s track record, in many ways, speaks for itself with alumni dotting the industry landscape and responsible for some of the most breakthrough advertising work since the school’s founding (as Adcenter) in 1996. For his part, Graves, a Fulbright scholar who began his career in 1993 at BBDO as an intern and received a Purple Heart for combat in Iraq during a stint in the U.S. Army, values the history and leadership role the school plays but is also keen to evolve its future continually.

“As an African American who’s been in this industry for awhile, diversity and inclusion are important to me,” he said. “But you also don’t want to lose the institutional memory of what makes advertising great. You have to look holistically and ensure that this program is relevant and looking forward.”

With increasing competition from advertising, marketing and portfolio programs around the world—both free and tuition-based—Graves acknowledges the challenge with a more crowded field for the graduate program but is confident that the school’s foundation will continue to propel ahead.

“Brandcenter is the best program of its kind in the world,” he noted. “And it’s important that students get their money’s worth. Helayne set everyone up for success, and it’s key that we strike a balance in their education and ensure their success throughout their time here and after graduation.”

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.