Vann Graves’ adventures in advertising have come full circle, as the Richmond native, Army veteran and ad industry vet has been tapped as the next executive director of the VCU Brandcenter.
Most recently chief creative officer at J. Walter Thompson, Atlanta, Graves was announced Thursday as the school’s fourth director in its 22-year-history. He succeeds Helayne Spivak, who has led the school since 2012 and announced her departure last May.
Graves, whose agency work has included stints at McCann and BBDO, both in New York, said he’s been eyeing a return to Richmond for years, having declined an invitation in 2012 by former Brandcenter chairman Mike Hughes to apply for the post when then-director Rick Boyko stepped down.
“It just wasn’t the right time,” Graves said Thursday of the previous offer in 2012. “I just wasn’t senior enough and didn’t have enough work experience to think that I could bring to the students, at that point, what they would need as far as leadership.”
Six years later, Graves, 49, said he is now ready.
Over the years, Graves has helped guide such brands as American Airlines, AT&T, Cigna, Coke, GE, Lockheed Martin, MasterCard, M&Ms, Shell Oil Co., Snickers, U.S. Army and Visa. At McCann, he worked on Lockheed Martin’s “The Field Trip to Mars,” a virtual reality project that racked up awards at the 2016 Cannes Lions festival.
Graves said such experience has given him enough industry cred to feel confident leading the Brandcenter.
“If it wasn’t the Brandcenter, I wouldn’t have thought to leave (J. Walter Thompson), because I’ve only been there just under two years,” Graves said. “It was the opportunity that’s been hovering around for a long time, like: ‘Wait, it’s available? Yes! I want to do this, or at least try.’”
The appointment is particularly fitting for Graves, whose great-grandfather worked at The Jefferson Hotel and in the hotel’s former carriage house that now houses the Brandcenter. His family has lived in Richmond since the 19th century, according to VCU’s announcement.
A graduate of Open High School after two years at Benedictine, Graves grew up in Richmond’s Northside, in a house on Moss Side Avenue in the Ginter Park neighborhood.
A self-described “‘80s child,” he said his parents had been active in the civil rights movement – his father, Albert Van Graves Jr., was one of the Richmond 34, a group of VUU students who took part in a 1960 sit-in of the downtown Thalhimers department store lunch counter – and encouraged him to be whatever he wanted to be, he said, “as long as I was a doctor, a lawyer, a businessperson or a teacher.”
“But growing up watching shows like ‘Bewitched,’ advertising was awesome!” he said.
Graves attended undergrad at Howard University, where he picked up a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a focus in marketing. He went on to get master’s degrees from Harvard University and the Pratt Institute.
A Fulbright scholar, Graves took a detour in his career after 9/11, when he enlisted in the Army and served seven years, rising to the rank of captain and receiving a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq.
Graves will start at the Brandcenter Aug. 10, at which time interim director Brad Armstrong will step down but remain an adjunct professor. Graves’ starting annual salary is $265,000.
Graves was selected over a pool of more than 60 applicants, about 15 to 20 of whom were considered viable candidates, according to Ed Grier, dean of the VCU School of Business. They were considered by a search committee consisting of Brandcenter board members and faculty, VCU faculty and community members.
The committee was chaired by Garret Westlake of VCU’s da Vinci Center and consulted with executive search firm Grace Blue. Grier made the final selection and said Graves stood out from the pack on all fronts.
“At every checkpoint, when I would check in on specific candidates, he rose to the No. 1 position,” Grier said. “That is rare to see that almost unanimous input saying that this is the person we’d really like to see. Being a Richmond native was a nice bonus. It certainly didn’t have to be that way, but it all worked out well for us.”
Married with two kids, Graves said he is getting ready to relocate to Richmond and is working out logistics.
As an African-American, Graves said he is well aware of challenges with diversity facing the ad industry, though he said his approach to leading the Brandcenter will focus on preparing strong students, regardless of color.
“For me, it’s not about cosmetic changes,” he said. “At the end of the day, the goal is to prepare students. And for students to be prepared for the real world, they have to be prepared for a world that has diversity and inclusion. It’s just a reality of the world of business today. We can’t avoid that, and we have to embrace that.”
Note: This story has been updated to include Graves’ salary, received from VCU after publication.