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I wasn’t sure how thrilled my graduate advertising students would be to spend their Friday night at the Virginia Opera. It’s not as though Giuseppe Verdi is really on most of their iPod playlists. But as we got closer to last Friday’s opening, I started to get more and more emails asking for extra tickets to bring friends. I even heard from students in other classes asking if I could adopt them for a night. So on Friday, I walked into Richmond’s Landmark Theatre with 50 well-dressed VCU Brandcenter students to see Verdi’s Il Trovatore. I won’t attempt to run through the entire plot here, but the characters in the story had some big problems. “Oops! I threw the wrong baby into the fire” is not a line I’ve seen in a lot of movies.

Our crew emerged about 3 hours later. Other than an agonizingly long scene of death by suicide and some comical translations on the supertitles, it was a wonderful evening and quite a contrast from our trip to Southside Speedway.

Special thanks to opera-lover, Jeannie Baliles, for inspiring this trip and helping arrange the group tickets and, Raquel Gimenez, for the photographs above.


Mentioned in General Colin Powell's "Meet the Press" interview today.

The winning team, Hank Leber, Alex Aloise, Sriram Venkitachalam, Jessica Barrera, Alex Jeon, and Enrico Gatti. (Photo stolen from the blog of Sriram Venkitachalam)

The winning team, Hank Leber, Alex Aloise, Sriram Venkitachalam, Jessica Barrera, Alex Jeon, and Enrico Gatti. (Photo stolen from the blog of Sriram Venkitachalam)

This week, my Cultural Exploration class made their final presentations to a non-profit group called Read To Them.

The presentations were the final step in a process that began several weeks ago. Each student spent time reading stories to children, and then wrote about the experience. They engaged in conversations with parents and children, teachers and administrators, librarians and grant-providers. They explored media partnerships, funding requirements, direct marketing response rates and other aspects of the challenge.

In the end, seven teams of graduate students presented their recommendations to the leadership of the organization. The work was well researched, thoughtful and very creative. The winning team (pictured above) identified an insightful way to overcome educator resistance to “just another literacy program” and repositioned the program as a community-building event. The “Trojan Horse” strategy was intended to accelerate the spread of the program and the resulting impact on students who participate.

Other teams focused on building a strong business foundation or tackled funding issues head-on by identifying the value of words. The Martin Agency’s Vice Chairman, Bruce Kelley, a Read To Them board member who initiated the project and graciously gave his time and attention to our students, summed up the power of the strategies by commenting, “This work completely blows me away.” More importantly, the work will be implemented by the organization and thousands of children will get a better chance in life thanks to these thoughtful efforts – a great example of the power of creativity to fuel change.


This week folks in Richmond, Virginia were treated to three days of music from around the world – all free and all performed in perfect weather along the rushing waters of the James River. My favorites were the San Jose Taiko Drummers, the Mayan Flyers and Larry Bland & The Volunteer Choir. (The latter, pictured here, is the only one I could get close enough to take a good picture of.)

I always think I have finicky musical tastes until I experience something like this and find myself exhausted from cheering for styles of music I didn’t know existed.

As a final word on Alan Pell Crawford’s exploration of Thomas Jefferson, I want to cite one passage of the work that has haunted me ever since putting the book down.

Crawford details how Jefferson railed against slavery in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, stating that by introducing slavery the British Crown had, “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery.” As part of a compromise with delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, Jefferson dropped the language from subsequent drafts.

We can only speculate as to whether Jefferson’s move was the only way to keep the American independence movement from derailing or whether he could have held his ground and prevailed, but I continue to be staggered by the implications. 

Is is possible that one moment of pragmatism in June of 1776 condemned millions of people to a life of slavery for another hundred years? Is it possible that the burning of Richmond, the killings at Gettysburg, and countless lynching throughout the south all came about as the unanticipated after-effects of a moment of weakness?

I’m raising this question, not to suggest that Jefferson was a weak man, but to illustrate how even a strong man, with great intelligence can cast a dark shadow by putting practicality ahead of principle.

This week, our cultural exploration class had the rare pleasure of engaging in a conversation with acclaimed author, Alan Crawford, who discussed his most recent work, “Twilight at Monticello”. The book chronicles the Thomas Jefferson’s later years, casting the historical figure in flesh and blood, rather than the bronze and marble we’re accustomed to. Jefferson’s intelligence and wisdom are portrayed in equal parts with his frailty and indecision. 

In light of his surroundings in the VCU Brandcenter’s lecture hall, Mr. Crawford chose to speak about the Jefferson brand, and how that brand has come to represent different things over time, depending on the mood of the populace. The lesson has broad implications for those of us who are charged with managing brands. At any moment, the public’s perception of a brand can change due to cultural events outside of our control. Imagine a small and ethical stock brokerage being looked upon with cynicism due to world events they play no role in. 

This is even more reason for brands to act with conviction and long-term predictability, rather than cow to the changing whims of the public. Many brands rid the waves of short-term fandom, only to collapse when the tide goes out.

For our students, who all visited Monticello in preparation for this session, the story behind the tourist attraction was a revealing one. Thank you Mr. Crawford and Mr. Jefferson.