Innovation & Design

Advertising By Design


The graduate program at VCU's Adcenter is staffed by advertising professionals. It aims to foster communication between managers and creatives

It's a Tuesday afternoon in September, but Richard Boyko, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), is not at school. Instead, he's on a train, commuting from AdWeek in Washington, D.C., where the former Ogilvy executive gave a keynote speech, to AdWeek in New York.

Boyko says this is all part of his job at VCU's Adcenter, the graduate advertising program of which he is managing director. In other words, attending industry-related conferences and events allows him to keep the course curriculum in tune with professional practice. Occasionally, it affords his students a chance to present their projects in a professional setting. In New York, for instance, Boyko will be showcasing a campaign he developed with students to showcase the "brand" of the U.S.

Focus on Professional Expertise

Founded just over a decade ago as an independent institution within VCU, Adcenter is designed to give students an insight into developments within the advertising industry. These days, that includes analysis of trends in new media or direct brand experiences. Instead of getting students to make portfolios of print or television campaigns—the more traditional approach—students work on holistic brand-innovation projects, designing packaging or retail stores.

Though many traditional portfolio-based advertising schools are now adopting this approach, the Adcenter has it built into its core: "The school is set up to replicate business and has always taught its creatives to think strategically," says Boyko. Adcenter hires no lifelong academics. Instead, most of its professors are advertising professionals. Its seven full-time teachers have recently retired from senior management roles in major agencies and can bestow a career of insights on the next generation. Ten adjuncts who currently work as creatives, account managers, or brand consultants, bring fresh, up-to-date knowledge of the industry into the classroom.

Boyko added a Masters in creative brand management to the curriculum when he took over as managing director in 2002. The degree is essentially an alternative MBA, aimed at those interested in the chief marketing officer position within corporations or advertising account directorships within agencies. At least once in their two-year degree these students are paired with creative-focused teams to work on specific advertising projects.

Bridging the Gap Between Suits and Creatives

It's a way, Boyko claims, of tackling a problem he often faced in his own 30-year career at major agencies including Leo Burnett Worldwide, TBWA/Chiat/Day and as a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather. He found that training his creative directors to work with account managers or clients proved nearly impossible because creative professionals didn't have the business wherewithal to communicate with team members from other departments. Meanwhile, the business minds often lacked the creativity to identify good ideas.

Within agencies, he explains, "advertising creatives and account managers never spoke to one another." So he tried to bridge the gap by visiting business schools such as Northwestern and Stanford to explain the creative perspective to future account-side hires. But as he met more students, Boyko realized the problem arose from an academic set-up that separated future advertising clients from future designers. "I'd visit a business school," he says, "and get an hour and a half of questions, because they'd never had anyone from the creative side talking to them before."

The result, says Boyko, is that "by the time these MBAs became managers, they've learned to think of advertising as a necessary evil. The business people are the ones who pay the checks, yet they aren't trained to look at creative content." Worst of all, he says, "they aren't trained to collaborate, to rub elbows with those unlike themselves."

So in 2002, Boyko decided to address the issue and started teaching himself. VCU's Adcenter was a natural fit. "I wanted a creative program where we not only had creative people and strategists, but where we also had an opportunity to create potential clients," says Boyko. At VCU, future creatives and future clients are forced to "rub elbows."

"When I took the job at Adcenter, people told me I was leaving the business," he says. "But I'm not. I'm more connected to the business."

Maha Atal is an intern at BusinessWeek.

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