War Correspondence

“Sept. 11 was my call to action. If you saw the towers fall and smelled the burning rubble—you understand why I joined.”

This is BBDO vp, associate creative director Vann Graves speaking in an e-mail from Mosul, Iraq, Sept. 1, 2006.

“I was sworn in to the U.S. Army on Oct. 20, 2001, at the age of 33.”

At that age, a fully thought-out decision, despite the emotions of the moment.

“I was born in 1968 in the capital of the Confederacy, and I was told due to the color of my skin I wouldn’t make it. Well, I am living the American dream. But while I was following my dreams, someone else stood up and protected my rights and now it is my turn.”

The archetypal Roman citizen-soldier Cincinnatus never could have envisioned the way art director Graves laid down his ploughshare and grabbed a sword.

“It was the week before Labor Day and my partners and I were in Los Angeles shooting the first BBDO spot for Motorola called ‘Phone Booth.’ That took two days. Then we had to fly to London to shoot the second part of the spot because the same day we signed Madonna she had an accident while on horseback. We thought that she wouldn’t be able to work with us, but she was up for it. So we flew to London to shoot the rest of the spot. When we finished in London, we flew back for a recording session for Pepsi with Kanye West and NAS. Kanye had to leave the session for an hour or so for a Hurricane Katrina telethon (this is when he mentioned the president). The next day was Labor Day, and the day after that I was on my way to Fort Dix.”

Graves was born in 1968 in Virginia, his mom’s family having been there since 1752. His dad came from Arkansas. Vann worked his way through school and earned first a BBA from Howard University with a concentration in marketing and then a master’s degree from Pratt Institute. He’s since established an endowment for a scholarship at Howard—giving back being a recurring theme in his life. “When I was in college, BBDO came to Howard. I think it was my sophomore year and I knew that’s where I wanted to work.”

Vann began working at BBDO as an intern. “I was asked to work on a special project, a Christmas card for Phil Dusenberry. I went to his office and there was this grayish-haired, soft-spoken guy. He wanted to know if I had time to work on this project because he knew I was busy.

“I created the Christmas card and went about my business. On the last day of my internship, Phil said, ‘You will have a job here when you graduate.’ We said we would stay in contact, but I was sure that was just Phil being polite. But we spoke a couple of times after I left and a year later. Three weeks before finals, I spoke to June Baloutine, director of creative services. She asked, ‘When was I coming back to work for BBDO?’ I said in three weeks, and that was it.”

During nine years at the agency, Vann worked most notably on Snickers, Motorola, Gillette and Pepsi. “I have been blessed to have a career like the one I have, but if it wasn’t for my country, I would not have this job,” Vann wrote in a Sept. 3 e-mail.

Vann joined the New York National Guard’s 69th Regiment, the one Robert E. Lee is said to have dubbed the “Fighting Irish” after it fought at the Battle of Bull Run and the unit made famous in the 1940 movie The Fighting 69th. Vann completed basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and was commissioned as an officer after his return to New York to await deployment.

In nitty-gritty military style, Vann’s commanding officer sums up his performance to this point: During an almost eight-month absence of the unit’s First Sergeant and Executive Officer, First Lieutenant Graves assumed the duties of both positions in addition to performing his own mission as media embed officer-in-charge. Despite a shortage of unit personnel, First Lieutenant Graves sustained the unit’s production level by placing himself in harm’s way, and conducting public affairs missions to include combat operations, where he provided PA support for units off the Forward Operating Base, executing dismounted movements to contact and conducting sniper operations. First Lieutenant Graves was actively engaged by anti-U.S. forces, and for his outstanding efforts during this time he was awarded the Combat Action Badge. First Lieutenant Graves leads by example and encourages team performance.

Vann has been nominated for a Bronze Star, and will become Captain Graves in November.

I came by Vann Graves’s story by accident after reading a piece about the difficulty veterans are having getting jobs (possibly in Details). I asked around about whether the ad industry or the agency that employs me or the 4A’s could create some sort of training program for veterans. An old friend who I thought might have an idea how to do it said, “Ya know, there’s a guy over at BBDO who is in Iraq.”

I hadn’t recalled any mention of this in the press, but Andrew Robertson, CEO of BBDO, noted in his memo to the staff announcing his vp’s new deployment, “Vann is a low-key kind of guy and probably wouldn’t have said a word to anyone.”

I asked Vann a couple of questions I thought might interest Adweek readers, if not Commentary or The New Republic:

Me: Has there been anything that you learned as an art director that helped you in the Army?

Vann: Yes. As an art director, you have many constraints, the client’s needs, your bosses’ needs and sometimes you have limitations in the production process. With all of those constraints, you still have to be creative. In the Army, there is process and regulation for EVERYTHING. There is no getting through it unless you apply some creative thinking.

Me: What have you learned in the Army that could help you in civilian life?

Vann: I know this may sound corny, but I have learned the true value of life. What I mean is over the past year, I have attended many memorial services, as well as having to face my own mortality. I have learned to focus on what is important about life. We sometimes get so caught up in the rat race and forget about the people in our lives. We forget about family and friends … we forget that life is so fragile. I now understand how important these relationships are and will keep them a priority in my life.

Early on in our e-mail relationship, Vann sent me a note inquiring about my article’s deadline. He wrote: “I hope my schedule doesn’t mess you up.”

Given my current schedule of online poker, golf and reading books I coulda-shoulda read in high school, my slate was clear. But in 37 years of hanging around art directors, this was the first solicitous remark from one about my schedule and an impending project.