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Tomorrow is graduation day for students at the VCU Brandcenter. One hundred of them will stride down the aisle as their name is called. They’ll take their diplomas and walk past a gauntlet of faculty, stopping to shake hands, hug and sometimes cry.
Brandcenter students will be surrounded by the truly important people in their lives. Fathers and mothers, sisters, brothers, friends and lovers. People who care about them. People who know the greatness and goodness they are capable of.
The Brandcenter faculty in the front of the room can be counted among these well-wishers. They’ve spent years sharing everything they know and demanding everything our students can give.
Like the families and friends in the audience, our professors have become important people to the students. In my years at the Brandcenter I’ve watched our faculty give their best for each student. A part of every day is spent out of sight of the students, conferring about their strengths, weaknesses, triumphs and tragedies. Our faculty talk about how to renew the energy of those who’ve become weary, how to inspire the uninspired, how to deliver worthy challenges and worthwhile critiques.
For Brandcenter faculty, there are few things more rewarding than seeing our students walk across that stage, confident in their abilities and well on their way to successful careers. So if you’re attending the graduation ceremony, take a moment to greet the faculty and staff behind the Brandcenter’s important work.
VCU Brandcenter’s full time professors. (click to enlarge)
This past year, VCU Brandcenter students and faculty got involved with an interesting project. We were asked to work with Venture Richmond and The Martin Agency to help drive and effort to bring attention to the creativity and innovation that fuels Richmond.
The effort started when Martin Agency Partner, Matt Williams, worked with leaders from the Richmond area to begin defining those things that set the city apart. The effort identified characteristics that were seen as essential to the city’s future. Participants saw an opportunity to define a reputation that is “forward-looking, eclectic, dynamic and timeless” fueled by “a history of non-conformity”.
The process identified a growing momentum in Downtown Richmond and beyond. Anyone who’s paying attention has observed the dramatic rise in downtown living spaces, arts venues, dining, entertainment and innovative businesses, schools and organizations. The data is impressive and led the group to define the potential for helping Richmond become recognized as a center of creativity. That’s where the Brandcenter came in.
The folks at Venture Richmond and Martin wanted to go beyond the business and civic leaders involved in the first phase, to take a broader sampling from the street level up. We recruited Brandcenter professors Caley Cantrell and Mark Avnet to help guide teams of over 40 graduate students, and we charged the team with conducting research and coming back with a fresh approach to a civic identity.
Guided by Cantrell and Avnet, the students explored Richmond from every angle. From first thing in the morning at a local coffee shop, to last call at the clubs, the students interviewed residents, business owners, civic leaders, architects, urban planners, musicians, magazine publishers, retailers, venture capitalists, philanthropists, tattoo artists, historians, museum directors and computer programmers. They collected stories that reflected both passion and pride.
It’s important to note that the students were not asked to invent a new identity for the city – they know better than to attempt to make up something that doesn’t fit the brand – instead they uncovered a movement that was already well established, one that many residents and leaders have been talking about for some time. The student’s mission was to synthesize the information from all sources and to develop an approach for telling the stories in a way that would accomplish two primary objectives:
1. To help Richmond take credit for the creativity that has been part of both the city’s past and present.
2. To inspire even more innovation in the future, by encouraging community members to practice more creativity in their work and lives.
When the student teams presented their work, we were all moved by their efforts. They saw an opportunity to avoid the overused slogans and jingles of typical municipal branding efforts and instead to leverage the existing shorthand for Richmond’s creative community: RVA.
The students felt that any top down slogan would be more likely to inhibit creativity, rather than promote it, so they suggested that “RVA” could be customized to say whatever the participant wanted it to say. They also designed the logo to allow the visuals to be ever changing. Again, based on the creativity of the user. This user-generated approach to branding allows the minimalist “RVA” to be endlessly reinterpreted.
Of course brands are much more complex than logos or even advertising, so the real power of the brand is driven by the action, not the words, of those involved. While the effort is still in its infancy, there are already promising signs on the horizon. Business leaders and university heads have committed their support, arts organizations and creative individuals are fueling new projects, training programs and events are being planned and the Mayor has supported the effort and announced a plan to establish Richmond’s first Arts District, with tangible incentives and promotion for participating organizations.
These tangible acts are being combined with increased marketing driven by a team of six organizations, including outstanding Richmond businesses, like Elevation, Hodges Partnership, JHI and West Cary Group. The team’s work already includes a website, online video, rolling billboards, printed materials and social networking. Soon these efforts will be joined by mobile applications and even a fleet of eco-friendly garbage trucks, carrying the RVA logo.
To paraphrase Mike Hughes, “Branding is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” The success of this program will depend on continued efforts to engage the community. But, given the promising start, I look forward to the day when our Brandcenter alumni return to find a more dynamic city where originality is celebrated – or better yet, I hope they never leave.
There was a time when advertising account managers were sales people. They had firm handshakes, wore crisp suits and boasted low handicaps. They were great company of course – it was their job. They had a knack for knowing the best restaurant and trendiest tavern in any city, and they always picked up the tab. They were the most powerful people in an agency because they owned the accounts. So much so that when they left the agency, the client would often follow.
That was a long time ago, and now the account manger’s role is less clear. Planners, brand strategists and creative directors often have more input into strategy than account managers, who are left to organize projects and act as go-betweens.
At a time when our entire industry is being redefined, few have bothered to redefine the role of the account manager.
This was the subject of a conversation I had about a year ago with the 4As new leader, Nancy Hill along with VCU Brandcenter Director, Rick Boyko, and colleagues, Don Just and Caley Cantrell. Nancy challenged us to develop a graduate-level program that would train the catalysts for a new era of account leadership. She asked us to develop leaders who understood brands, embraced new ways to engage consumers and who would never cede their seat at the strategic table.
We spent a year working with industry leaders, agency owners, digital experts, CMOs, CEOs, and CCOs. We spoke with agencies like Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Publicis, The Martin Agency, McCann and Ogilvy. We built a 5-day program that will shape in the careers of a handful of account leaders. The program begins on June 5th and those who are able to attend will emerge stronger, more confident leaders. The kind of leaders who win new business, grow accounts and establish trust among clients and colleagues.
At the time I’m writing this there are still a few seats available. If you or someone you know would benefit from attending, I encourage you to drop everything and follow the links below for more information or contact our program coordinator Megan Clifton at 804 828-8384.