With the February release of “The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Reflection & Expression,” Vann Graves, Ph.D., executive director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter and anthology contributor, adds another accolade to his already long list of accomplishments.
Her segment in the anthology, “Another Brick in the Wall,” discusses the importance of skills and tangible experiences, building a wall of credibility.
Graves, who was born and raised in Richmond, joined Brandcenter, part of the VCU School of Business, as executive director in 2018. He previously served as chief creative officer at J. Walter Thompson , Executive Vice President and Global Chief Creative Officer at McCann New York, and Vice President and Creative Director of BBDO New York. A Fulbright scholar and decorated veteran, he is a graduate of Howard University, the Pratt Institute, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Graves fondly described his first experience with VCU when he attended Open High School in Richmond.
“We were able to take college classes at Open High and I took a VCU English course. I remember that opportunity very well to this day,” he said. “VCU has always been special to me. It’s part of my hometown and an important part of who I am.
He explained that his role at Brandcenter is to make sure students understand creativity, business strategy, innovation, and how to evolve or grow as creative problem solvers.
“As a member of the Brandcenter, I stand on the shoulders of giants. As a creative and an educator, I am proud to be able to carry the torch,” he said.
Graves spoke to VCU News about his contribution to “The Black Experience” anthology.
Can you talk about your contribution — “Another Brick in the Wall” — and how this discussion fits into your work at Brandcenter?
I was asked to contribute to the anthology as someone who had studied communication design and worked as an art director. Anthology editors have acknowledged my experiences as a black person in this industry who has witnessed and endured the good, the bad, and the ugly. They asked me, “What is one thing you would tell people about your experience?”
I got the idea for the wall from my parents growing up. Being Black, people will sometimes look past you and not see who you are as a unique individual. You need to build your wall with meaningful, tangible things that people recognize and prove yourself to later.
I call these accomplishments “bricks” – the accomplishments you list on your resume are prime examples of your bricks. They consist of the things you spend your time on; the things you mill to perfection. Look at what you have on your wall – degrees, technical skills, experiences… whatever it is. Today, the first thing people do after meeting you or hearing about you for the first time is Google your name to see who you are and what you do. The more (bricks) you have to show, the better.
What do you think of being part of this anthology?
I was honored and excited to be featured in this work during such an important and critical time. We live in a progressive age that has recognized and emphasized the need to magnify black voices — not just our voices — our thoughts, perspectives, and experiences. The human experience is not limited or confined to one race. We all may struggle to understand how we fit into the world.
Now is a great time to reflect on how we as people of color (especially black people) are viewed in this country, how we see ourselves, and how others see us. We have been overlooked and undervalued for much of this country’s history, and that inevitably plays a role in how we shape who we are. I really appreciated the opportunity to make a small contribution to this anthology and share my thoughts on something bigger than me.
What was your first contact with the advertising field?
One of my first conversations about entering the world of advertising was with Mike Hughes, the former president and creative director of The Martin Agency whose name appears on the Brandcenter building (officially known as Mike Hughes Hall). During this conversation, Mike told me that I needed to leave Richmond, gain life experience and, therefore, a better understanding of the world. According to Mike, the biggest role of a creative is to tell great stories, and to do that, we need diverse experiences and perspectives. I took Mike’s advice and left Richmond to move to DC. As part of this first step towards a career in advertising, I completed my undergraduate degree in marketing at Howard University, which paid for itself. It created a solid foundation for everything I’ve done in my career.
Can you talk about how the VCU Brandcenter has progressed in terms of developing a culture of creative thinking and craftsmanship?
When Brandcenter was founded as VCU Adcenter by Diane Cook-Tench, our primary focus was to prepare students for a career in advertising. The Adcenter was renamed Brandcenter under the tenure of Rick Boyko, who became director in 2003. He recognized a shift in the industry and that it was moving beyond ads; essentially, he recognized that we needed to prepare our students for more.
Today, the Brandcenter focuses on brands and their impact on culture. As businesses change, our direction will change. Creativity and innovation were once seen as separate from the company’s core business, but have since been recognized as a fundamental part of it. Everything is inextricably linked. And the Brandcenter program trains students to be polymaths and consider the whole equation when solving complex business problems.
We prepare students to become the next generation of creative business leaders. Our faculty works hard to ensure that our program is constantly evolving to match what is happening in the world of brands and business today.
How did you combine what you learned in the military as a captain with what you learned as a creative director into your leadership style?
My agency experience has taught me to focus on craftsmanship, innovation and creativity – to strive for the best possible teamwork. Along the way, I’ve learned that great ideas are fragile and need to be handled with care.
As a creative director, when one of your teams comes up with a great idea, you need to avoid the temptation to superimpose your opinion on that concept. Your role is to help the team grow and further cultivate the idea to express it in the best possible way.
My military experience has taught me the importance of taking care of your team. A commander’s job is all about leadership, and good leadership is about listening to the needs of the team to accomplish the mission. You have to trust that your soldiers are doing their job and give them the tools to succeed. Your job as a leader is to ensure that your team is properly supported, as this facilitates overall mission success. I apply this approach to my work at Brandcenter. Our goals are to prepare our students to be the best in their class. We provide our students with the tools and skills they need to succeed in the job market.
The building where the Brandcenter is located, originally the carriage house of the Jefferson Hotel, has a special meaning for you. What does it mean to work in this space?
When I got the job at the Brandcenter, my grandmother told me that my great-grandfather worked in the building when it was used as a coach house for the Jefferson Hotel. This building is a piece of my personal history, and I think of it every time I walk through its doors. Although we’re only a few generations apart, I also think about how different the world was for him, stepping into that same space. This dichotomy does not escape me.
Can you tell me how you redesigned the downstairs space and what you would like to accomplish with the renovations?
The ground floor of the Brandcenter is traditionally a space where our students spend time working and collaborating on projects outside of class. The space was an open concept in its initial take and vision, with much of it covered by large, unique concrete tables. The layout was designed to foster collaboration but was only conducive to this style of work. We wanted to take into account that people have different working styles to accommodate, and we created a space that allows students to work the way they want. Whether independently or in a team, in public or in private. The space is designed to be functional and meet the diverse needs of our students.
Can you talk about the evolution of the creative world and how it relates to the future of the advertising industry?
Creativity, advertising, marketing and branding are moving in the direction of accessible creativity. You have TikTok influencers building and creating multi-million dollar brands on their phones. It was unheard of 10 years ago. You have tech platforms and companies that defy boundaries, with content, information, art and more at your fingertips. It’s revolutionary. This is a huge leap forward for the company as a whole. Technology has made creativity accessible, more democratic. Our phones now allow us to create and generate content on a level once reserved for studios. Change is a constant, especially when it comes to technology, and it’s important to keep up.
What have you learned after running the Brandcenter for over three years?
A lesson that requires constant care and attention is the continuous effort to stay relevant to ensure that we prepare our students for today’s business world and beyond. The byproduct of this effort is a natural way to fight obsolescence.
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to VCU News at newsletter.vcu.edu and get select stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings delivered to your inbox.