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A One-of-a-Kind Graduate Advertising School

The Brandcenter, originally named the VCU Adcenter, opened its doors in 1996 to the first fifty-one graduate students in Art Direction, Copywriting, and Strategy.

Founded and directed by industry veteran Diane Cook-Tench, the Adcenter created a space for students to learn from and be challenged by some of the brightest minds in branding.

The school would be the first graduate-level program for advertising that intentionally focused on the merging of creative, business, and strategic teams. Operating like an ad agency, while combining the best of academic programs with the best of portfolio schools, the Adcenter provided students with best-in-class education and career preparation, which it continues to do today—more than 25 years later.

Adcenter quickly gained recognition as one of the leading advertising and design programs in the country. Within the first few years, Adcenter student work was recognized in numerous awards shows, including D&AD, ANDY’s, Clios, The One Show, and the Cannes Lions Festival. In March 2005, the VCU Adcenter was named the top graduate advertising school by Creativity Magazine.

“A little more than four years ago, an experiment in advertising education began. What if the best of academic programs were combined with the best of portfolio schools, and operated like a working ad agency? Walls would come down. Strategic planners, copywriters, and art directors would work and think and create together. No one would choose between being creative or strategic. Everyone would be both.”

A Brandcenter publication from the early 2000s

Image of the newspaper in 1995 announcing the plans to open the Adcenter
A 1995 newspaper article announcing plans to launch the Adcenter

From Adcenter to Brandcenter

In 2008, the graduate program changed its name to the Brandcenter, which better encompasses the breadth of the evolving industry.

Following this change in identity, the Brandcenter moved from its original location in Richmond’s Shockoe Slip to its current location, the former carriage house of The Jefferson Hotel. The space was reimagined by world-renowned architect Clive Wilkinson, who is known for designing spaces for Google, Disney Store Kingdom, and advertising agencies such as TBWA/Chiat/Day (Los Angeles), Mother (London), and JWT (New York).

While a lot has changed over the years at the Brandcenter, what hasn’t changed is an abiding belief that creativity can be a powerful force in a world that desperately needs new ideas.

The Adcenter building
The Brandcenter

From Advertising to Creative Problem-Solving

Today, the Brandcenter is touted as the preeminent graduate program for creative problem-solving.

After their sixty weeks at the Brandcenter, graduates of the master’s program for art direction, copywriting, creative brand management, experience design, and strategy go on to work for some of the biggest, most influential brands in the world. They also harness their creative problem-solving skills to fight anything from climate change to social injustice.

Adcenter / Brandcenter Directors

Diane Cook-Tench / 1996-99

Diane Cook-Tench is the Founding Director of the Brandcenter.

She began her career as an art director after graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. Later, during her time at The Martin Agency as a creative director, she discovered her passion for mentoring young creative teams.

Taking her love for mentorship and her industry experience, Diane set out to create a graduate program for advertising unlike any other. The Brandcenter, originally named the Adcenter, was the first program to offer an educational experience that mimicked an agency—where creative and strategic teams worked together, and the creative and business sides converged.

An avid member of the local and global creative community, Diane also helped to launch CreativeMornings RVA and has served on countless other organizations around the world.

In 2017, she was inducted into the The One Club for Creativity’s Educators Hall of Fame.

Prior to teaching, Diane won over 100 national and international awards for her creative work including One Show pencils, Clios, and Cannes Lions.

She is most proud, however, to continue helping young creatives launch their creative careers.

Patricia Alvey / 2000-01

Patty Alvey, Ph.D. joined the Brandcenter as its director in 2000, bringing previous experience in directing a portfolio program in the more traditional advertising department at The University of Texas.

Patty brought much-needed academic credentials and credibility to the program.

In 2002, Alvey left to head the Temerlin Advertising Institute at Southern Methodist University.

Rick Boyko / 2003-12

Prior to the Brandcenter, Rick spent 30 years in the industry, working for major brands at agencies including Leo Burnett, Chiat/Day, and Ogilvy & Mather. As Co-President & Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy North America, he integrated Ogilvy’s North American offices, leading the agency to be named Agency of the Year by Advertising Age in 2000.

Under his leadership, the school moved to its current location. Rick also led the charge in updating our name from the Adcenter to the Brandcenter.

Helayne Spivak / 2012-18

Helayne Spivak joined the Brandcenter as its director in 2012.

The former Chief Creative Officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness began her advertising career in NY as a copywriter. Over the years, she served a number of agencies as Creative Director, Group Creative Director, and Chief Creative Officer.

During her career, she was recognized by The Wall Street Journal’s Leaders Campaign, was honored with The Matrix Award for Women in Communications, appeared on the cover of Working Woman Magazine for which she wrote the cover article, was named one of the top 50 Women In Business by Business Week magazine, served as a judge at the Cannes Advertising Festival, was a member of the board of directors of The One Club, and received many individual awards for her work from the Clio Awards (including best writer), The One Club, Cannes, The Andy’s, and the Effie’s.

Vann Graves / 2018-Present

Dr. Graves joined the Brandcenter as the first executive director in 2018. He brings 25+ years of creative, business, and executive leadership experience, having worked with some of the world’s leading global brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, MasterCard, Visa, GE, and M&Ms, to name a few). His work has been recognized with numerous industry awards, including Cannes Lions, a Grand London International Award, a Grand Clio, and a D&AD Graphite Pencil. Vann also serves as the Dean of the Cannes Creative Academy.

Graves’ military experience contributes to his approach to leadership; he puts a high value on collaboration and commitment to support innovation and high-quality creative work. Prior to the Brandcenter, he served as a Chief Creative Officer at J. Walter Thompson; EVP, Global Executive Creative Director at McCann New York; VP, Creative Director at BBDO New York; and CoFounder at FL+G, a full-service branding agency in Denver.

A Fulbright scholar, Graves holds degrees from Howard University, the Pratt Institute, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

*Past Managing and Interim Directors

Brad Armstrong

An adjunct professor at the Brandcenter for a number of years, Brad Armstrong served as interim director for most of 2018, while the school conducted a national search for a new executive director.

A former Partner and Director of Account Management at The Martin Agency, Armstrong led the Walmart account, which contributed to Martin earning its first Agency of the Year designation from Adweek.

He was named Ad Person of the Year in 1996 and served as the President and CEO of Virginia Performing Arts Foundation—a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in Richmond through dramatically improved performing arts facilities.

Don Just

Don Just is the former President and CEO of The Martin Agency—when it was a small local shop of about 18 very talented people who were seeking to play on the national stage. Over the next decade, the agency ranks grew more than tenfold, agency billings approached $250 million, and the agency had satellite offices throughout the country.

Don joined the Brandcenter faculty around 2004 and was charged with developing and leading the brand management concentration.

He’ll tell you that this last career stop was the most fulfilling, because successfully sparring with 100 brilliant graduate students every day, all of whom dared you to teach them something, was challenging indeed.

Kelly O'Keefe

A marketing innovator with decades of experience, Kelly O’Keefe spent 13 years at the Brandcenter—running executive education, chairing the brand management concentration, once serving as Managing Director and a member of the board.

Kelly co-founded and currently serves as Managing Partner of Brand Federation, a consulting firm specializing in brand strategy, marketing strategy, and strategic planning for forward-thinking organizations.

Judy VanSlyke Turk, Ph.D.

Judy VanSlyke Turk, Ph.D. served the VCU community as interim director of the Brandcenter from 2002-2003. She also served as director of the VCU Robertson School and a Professor Emeritus. She was a world-renowned communications scholar and practitioner.


So much happens in the sixty weeks our students spend with us. Our magazine, SIXTY, offers a comprehensive look at our program, showcases our students and their work, and celebrates our alumni and their endeavors.

Read SIXTY / Volume 25

SIXTY: Throughout the Years