VCU Brandcenter director Vann Graves has a 'reputation as a strong, thoughtful and effective leader'
by Tammie Smith
Last year attending Fourth Baptist Church in Church Hill in Richmond for the first time in a long time, Vann Graves hesitated when the request came for visitors to stand to be recognized.
He was raised in Richmond and grew up attending that church with his parents, but hadn’t lived in Richmond in more than 30 years.
The 50-year-old moved back to Richmond last year to take the job as executive director of the VCU Brandcenter, the highly regarded master’s level advertising program at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Am I a guest? It is my family church,” Graves recalled thinking to himself that Sunday. He’d gotten married at Fourth Baptist in 2010.
Graves had left Richmond after attending Benedictine High School and graduating from Open High School in 1987, partly on the advice of one of Richmond’s advertising’s gurus, Mike Hughes, who recommended that he broaden his horizons beyond his hometown if he wanted to succeed in advertising.
“He told me if I want a career in advertising to leave Richmond but come back because Richmond is home and Martin could be in my future. We kept in touch until his death,” Graves said about Hughes, the former longtime president of The Martin Agency who died in December 2013.
Graves took that advice.
His first stop was Washington, D.C., where he went to historically black Howard University to earn a business degree in marketing.
His next stop was New York City, the media capital of the world, for an internship with advertising giant BBDO. That turned into a full-time job and for the next 20-plus years, Graves called New York City home. He was officially an ad man.
After 15 years at BBDO, he went to McCann Erickson, then McCann Worldgroup. He worked on advertising campaigns for such brands as Visa, GE, Snickers, Coke, American Airlines and Lockheed Martin.
Along the way, he earned two master’s degrees and served a tour of duty in Iraq with the Army Reserve, compelled by the devastation of 9/11 to enlist at the age of 33.
“What I’ve learned about this industry is that this industry is about taking experiences and finding human truths about things and using those to create ideas that are universal,” said Graves, speaking from a conference room at the Brandcenter, reflecting on the journey that brought him full circle.
“If I had never left, I would have nothing to talk about,” he said.
That Sunday in September at Fourth Baptist Church, he decided 30 years was a long time to be gone.
“I stood up. I said my name. Then I saw heads turn,” Graves said.
Many of the church elders immediately knew who he was. They knew his parents. They knew his aunts and uncles. They knew his grandparents.
“It felt like I was home. Fourth Baptist Church is my home church and my family church since before the current building was built in the 1880s,” he said.
Graves said the Richmond he returned to is different, and he sees it through a different lens.
“When I left Richmond, it was culturally white and black and only that,” he said.
“I think because of VCU and I think a lot of larger businesses have brought in different types of people from a cultural standpoint, which has made Richmond as a town much more vibrant, much more interesting. After spending 25 years in New York, you yearn for that.”
As executive director of the VCU Brandcenter, Graves is the center’s chief administrator, strategist, fundraiser, advocate and champion.
The Brandcenter has a reputation for producing stellar talent who land jobs at some of the country’s top ad agencies. VCU Brandcenter graduates this year had a hand in at least 10 of the ads that aired during the Super Bowl.
Graves said the graduate level program’s biggest challenge is to “always stay relevant.”
“We can’t lag behind the industry. We need to try our best to be in front of it,” he said.
When he started in advertising years ago, the goal was to come up with that one big idea for a client, Graves said.
Clients want that and more these days.
“They are also looking for return on investment,” he said.
“If I spend this money to hire you, what is my ROI. How does this solve a business problem? How do I get more clicks? How do I get more people through the door? How do I get people talking about my brand? What is the strategy behind it? So it’s not just a creative idea. It’s a creative idea with a business spin,” Graves said.
Darryl Lee, global CEO of Universal McCann, has known Graves since 2009. They worked on accounts together at McCann — Lee as chief strategy officer, Graves as chief creative officer.
“The thing about Vann, if you look at his life and his biography, he brings a real authenticity to ideas,” Lee said.
“He sees where the industry is going ... advertising is changing dramatically. The biggest advertising platforms are Facebook and Google and Instagram in terms of scale,” Lee said.
Graves, he said, has always emphasized idea-driven creativity.
“He is going to do great stuff. I think everybody is watching,” Lee said.
The VCU Brandcenter’s structure allows it to adapt.
“We don’t have tenured professors. Everyone here is expected to be a professional in the field, which allows our students access and opportunity,” Graves said.
Students do more than assemble a portfolio, he said.
“A lot of folks will teach you the functionality of how to make something pretty or how to execute something. We take it a step back to what is the concept,” Graves explained.
“How does it solve a business problem, and how do you approach that? That’s why you are able to hear folks here talk about creative problem solvers. I like to say creative problem seekers. You don’t have to wait for a client to say this is the problem. You as that creative partner should always think, ‘Let’s look at your whole business.’ If you are really doing your job, you are coming to the table with some interesting ideas the client hasn’t thought about.”
Danny Robinson, chief client officer at The Martin Agency, said the Brandcenter requires a leader with a holistic view of marketing and advertising.
“I’ve known Vann for quite a few years and while I’ve never worked for or with him, his reputation as a strong, thoughtful and effective leader precedes him,” Robinson said.
“Vann has traits that make him uniquely qualified to guide the future of the school. Vann is steady and humble. Empathetic but doesn’t suffer fools. And it’s a bonus that Vann is a Richmond native and a person of color. He understands the history of the Brandcenter and the important role it plays in the city, and his experience as a minority in advertising comes with an empathy and urgency that is vital to the success of the program and students it serves.”
Advertising is not a career Graves’ parents would have chosen for him.
His late father, Albert Van Graves Jr., was one of the Richmond 34, a group of Virginia Union University students arrested in February 1960 when they held lunch counter sit-ins at downtown stores. The cases eventually were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which threw out the trespass convictions, a victory for the students.
Graves said his parents’ generation fought for opportunities for their children. Graves said his parents would have preferred he use that opportunity to choose a career in a field such as law or medicine.
“I’m coming out of my neck talking about I want to be a creative for an ad agency,” Graves said. It took years for some family members to grasp what he did for a living.
A conversation once with an uncle went like this:
Uncle: “You do commercials, right?”
Graves: “Yes, that’s part of a larger campaign, but yes we do commercials, print ads, radio.”
Uncle: “How long are commercials?”
Back then you had 30-second spots, Graves said.
“He looked at me and said, ‘What do you do the rest of the time?’”
“There’s a lot of work, a lot of people and a lot of money that go into those 30 seconds,” Graves said. “They just think you sit in this room and it happens magically.”
The notion of advertising as a job was something Graves picked up from TV, the 1960s-1970s sitcom “Bewitched,” of all places.
In an interview on the student-produced podcast “We Are Next,” Graves described how ad man Darrin Stephens, employee of fictional agency McMann and Tate, seemed to have it all — good job, nice house and a magical wife.
His first attempt to write creative persuasive copy came in fifth grade at Ginter Park Elementary School when he entered a GRTC bus company contest to come up with a slogan. His entry came in second.
His advertising connections led him to Autumn Adkins, also a former Richmonder who eventually became his wife. He was at an advertising awards show in 2008 chatting with the wife of The Martin Agency’s Robinson. The wife got the idea to do some matchmaking with Graves and Adkins.
They married two years later at Fourth Baptist, had a reception at The Jefferson Hotel and are the parents of two young children.
An estimated $190 billion is spent on advertising in the U.S. annually.
Broadcast time for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl this year reportedly cost $5 million. Ad time during Sunday’s Academy Awards reportedly cost $2.6 million per 30-second commercial spot.
But the industry has work to do when it comes to diversity and gender equity.
Historically, there has been no clear pipeline to a career in advertising, Graves said.
“I had always tried to make change while I was in the industry, but it was like a drop in the ocean. I could help one or two people,” Graves said.
“But if you look at the whole industry, I am not doing anything or I am treading water. ... With a role like this, I can be at the river before it feeds into the ocean. The Brandcenter is a pipeline into a larger industry. If we make sure we populate the pipeline, there is no reason not to then have more students of color and diversity.”
The #MeToo sexual harassment scandals that felled some high-profile figures in entertainment also surfaced in advertising, including the departures of several high-level executives of The Martin Agency in late 2017 and last year following an allegation in 2017 against the agency’s former chief creative officer, Joe Alexander.
Kelly O’Keefe, a Richmond advertising veteran who teaches creative brand management at the Brandcenter, said Graves hit the ground running.
“I had the opportunity to speak to some of our alumni who worked for Vann in Atlanta and they just think the world of him,” O’Keefe said.
“That to me was as important as his skills as a leader. He is someone who is respected by the people he works with. He is someone who understands that our work environment needs to be respectful,” he said.
“Our work needs to be honest. When we are communicating messages on behalf of brands, we need to be responsible in the ways that we are doing that. That hasn’t always been the norm in our industry,” O’Keefe said. “Vann brings a strong grounded moral character to our world. It is what I admire most about him.”