The University of What's Next
"This is not brain surgery. You can learn brain surgery."
-Mark Fenske, associate professor, Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter
The director of the program never graduated from college. There's not one Ph.D. thesis to be seen, published, or in progress, by any its faculty. And before walking through the door to his afternoon class, one of its featured professors tells a guest, with Sweeney Todd-like glee, "It's time for the disemboweling."
Welcome to the Graduate Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. One part ad agency, one part rogue M.B.A. program, and one part laboratory for experiments in 21st-century branding, the Brandcenter is widely considered the nation's most demanding, progressive, and acclaimed graduate program in advertising.
In years past, the Brandcenter was known as the creatively driven Adcenter. But the opening in mid-January of a new $9 million facility designed by Clive Wilkinson-the architect behind Google's "Googleplex" headquarters in Silicon Valley and ad agency Chiat/Day's revolutionary officeless workplace near Los Angeles-presented an opportunity to give the program a name that reflects its broader and ever-evolving curriculum.
The change includes a planning track called communications strategy and a new track in building a better client, called brand management. Next year, it will include a track encompassing all things interactive: creative technology.
"In M.B.A. programs, students don't have the opportunity to work with writers, planners, art directors, and account service people," says Don Just, the former C.E.O. of the Martin Agency in Richmond and the current head of the brand-management track.
"They're not exposed to the full breadth of the advertising process," Just adds. "Here they work in groups that mirror the current agency environment. They are constantly exposed to dozens and dozens of projects with teams outside their discipline in environments they can't control."
Perhaps this is why last year Creativity magazine named the 12-year-old program the country's best ad school, BusinessWeek ranked it among the world's top design schools, and Michael Roth, C.E.O. of the Interpublic Group, pledged $1 million to the program to establish "a pipeline of talented people in our industry."
A tour of the Brandcenter's new home with its director, Professor Rick Boyko, a former art director and the former chief creative officer of Oglivy & Mather, reveals the fusion of two eras in architecture and a literal link between advertising's history and future.
The reimagined 1870s brick building that houses faculty offices is the former carriage house for the Jefferson Hotel. Attached to it is an ultracontemporary geometric structure that contains most of the student-friendly space.
"I thought this would be semiretirement," Boyko says, as he walks through a new focus-group room that will be used by the future agency planners. "But the last four years I've worked as hard as ever."
Not only was Boyko involved in every aspect of the planning, design, and construction of the new buildings, he personally donated $1 million toward it.
As we walk through the student lounge (partially financed by Yahoo, with foosball and ping-pong tables on order) students skate past on Heelys sneakers while others spread out on plush couches in the lounge area.
Next door is a huge brainstorming room in which two students are playing chess on an enormous poured-concrete community table, and several others are discussing plans for the night.
It seems almost idyllic but the laid-back vibe is deceptive. The semester has only just begun and projects will soon come fast and furious. At Brandcenter, like at many real-world ad agencies, all-nighters and weekend work comes with the territory. For that reason, the building, which is always open, is equipped with showers, changing rooms, and dining areas.
While waiting for Boyko's class "Building Brands in International Cultures," a second-year student in the art direction track says Brandcenter is "much, much harder" than his undergraduate years at Yale. "It is intense and the workload is relentless," he says.
One of the first slides in Boyko's presentation is the Dan Wieden tenet: "Come to work stupid every day."
Projects for students in the communications-strategy track under Caley Cantrell, formerly of the Martin Agency, include creating presentations of original perspectives on how to shape a brand's future. On a recent day, two teams shared provocative multimedia presentations on the perception of feminine beauty and the segmentation of the green movement.
Brandcenter students have also been involved in a number of real-world projects for companies like Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Yahoo, The Learning Channel, and, currently, The Tap Project, a water conservation marketing initiative championed by the ad agency Droga5.
One thing visitors notice while making the rounds is that they don't see many "traditional" ads. Instead of storyboards and headline-driven print ads, there are Web stories, essays, viral video concepts, brand-communications platforms, and cartoons. In the digital age, anything that makes someone take a second look is an ad, and no one understands this more than the students.
"They're not that interested in TV at all," Boyko says. "Sometimes I have to tell them that, you know, you're still gonna need some ads in your books."
So can advertising be taught at places like V.C.U.'s Brandcenter, or other well-regarded programs like The Creative Circus in Atlanta, The Art Center in Pasadena, or Miami Ad School?
"Talent and instinct are a big part of it," says Linda Harless, creative manager at Goodby Silverstein & Partners of San Francisco, Adweek's 2007 Agency of the Year. "But the V.C.U. model, having account services and planners and creatives working as a team, is a slam dunk for a student jumping into this business. When you give them a brief on their first week on the job you're not worried because they've been through so much already."
Which brings us to the disemboweling. And Fenske. His first name is Mark, but everyone (including students and this reporter, who witnessed the disemboweling firsthand while working for him in 1998) calls him Fenske.
In his advanced portfolio class, Fenske, the former Wieden & Kennedy creative star and founder of the The Bomb Factory agency in Santa Monica, California, takes no prisoners. Work is shredded, literally. Egos are bruised. Lessons in what sometimes seem to be oxymorons in advertising-ethics and morals-are dispensed with Taoist gravity.
"Can you keep yourself from doing something that intrudes on people's privacy?" he asks. And, "Do you mind if I do this?" as he tears a student's meticulously-composed yet unsuccessful ad in half. And, "Do you want a job knowing that someone who works there thinks that your best stuff isn't good?"
For Brandcenter students, perhaps because of classes like this, such a scenario is a long shot. Assistant director of student affairs Ashley Sommardahl explains, "There's less of a chance of a letdown in the real world after leaving such a progressive environment, because they're recruited by the best."
Indeed, there is a growing V.C.U. alumni network in place at the country's top agencies. And at a recruiting fair at the school after graduation last year, there were 125 recruiters for 75 students.
Which leads one to the conclusion that yes, advertising absolutely can be taught. And sometimes its best teachers are its students.
James P. Othmer is the author of the novel The Futurist, and is writing an advertising memoir.Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.