An Interview with Andrew LeVasseur, Head of Experience Design at VCU Brandcenter

At the VCU Brandcenter’s annual recruiter session, there’s a small group of tinkerers and builders and mad scientists who sit in the same room as art directors and copywriters, but kind of off to the side. Instead of ads, their tables are littered with drones and robots, hacked toys and games, tablets with app prototypes. Tangible things, things they’ve actually built. They are a new breed, a new creature in the industry. Until now, they’ve been called Creative Technologists.

I love talking to them about their work. I have a whole different set of questions than when I talk with the art directors and copywriters. Things like “What the hell is this?” “How’s it work?” “How did you make it?” “What’s this button do?” “Have you patented it?” And, usually in the back of my mind, “Wow, is this even advertising?”

This track—Creative Technology—has just been renamed Experience Design. We caught up with Andrew LeVasseur, the head of the Creative Technology/Experience Design track to get his take on VCU Brandcenter’s approach to technology and user experience, the future of the program and the reason for the name change. 

 

What’s your background? 
I have worked for top agencies like Razorfish (Seattle) and The Martin Agency (Richmond).  I have also launched and helped grow multiple start-up companies. My brand credits include Barclays, Best Buy, Capella University, Capitol One, Harrahs Entertainment, Hawaiian Airlines, Holland America, Microsoft, Michelin – BFGoodrich, Verizon FiOS, Weight Watchers, among others.
My focus areas include brand strategy, user experience design, information architecture, interaction design, software, information systems and process design, technology and new media, applied research and analytics.

What’s your role at the Brandcenter? 
I joined the VCU Brandcenter as an adjunct in 2009 where I played a large role in establishing the Creative Technology track (a precursor to the Experience Design track). As head of the Experience Design track, I help shape the vision, curriculum and course content.  As a professor, I teach multiple courses focused on strategy, design and technology.

Why the name change from Creative Technology to Experience Design? 
The Creative Technology track has successfully been in operation for 6 years and the name “Creative Technology” has served a specific purpose for the times we were in.  We’re renaming the track to better align with the direction of the industry, the career opportunities for our students, and to reflect more specifically the titles and roles our graduates are assuming in business. 
So what does an Experience Design student do? 
Experience Design students concept, design, prototype and build ‘experiences’ that push the envelope of what is technologically possible.

While at the VCU Brandcenter, Experience Design Students will:

  • ·       Study new and emerging user participation platforms like digital, social, mobile, and experiential (IoT). 
  • ·       Identify new and imaginative ways for brands to engage with users across platforms. 
  • ·       Design ads, interfaces, apps, wearables, robots, flying machines…things yet to be imagined.
  • ·       Balance strategic, tactical and technical project demands to bring ideas to life in both form and function.

Here is the Fall 2015 Course List:

Semester 1: Business of Branding, Creative Thinking, User Experience Design, Physical Computing 1

Semester 2: Strategy & Design, User Participation Platforms, Visual Storytelling

Semester 3: Creating Gravitational Pull, Experimentation, Physical Computing 2

Semester 4: Innovation, Persuasion, Indivituation

 

What kind of people are you looking for in Experience Design? 
We accept students from very diverse backgrounds and believe that the more variety in experience, capabilities and skills make for richer collaborative design.  That said, we want students who have a passion for business, design and technology, and who are: 
Culturally-Curious/Tech-Forward:  Are you fascinated by the world around you and the impact of
technology and new media on culture and people?
Creative Problem Solvers: Do you see challenges as design opportunities and have the capacity to
find creative design solutions? 
Interdisciplinary: Do you possess a combination of business, design, and technology
experience?  But want to develop a deep specialization and practice in experience design. 
Productive Team Members:  Do you welcome new ideas and play well with others? 
Thinkers + Makers: Are you equally comfortable developing concept, design, and prototypes?  
Strategic, Tactical and Technical: Can you address the strategic, tactical and technical challenges
that come with any complex design project?
If this sounds like you, we’re still accepting applications for Fall 2015
How about the students graduating. Can you describe their skills?

Breadth and Depth. You’ve heard it before, but the industry requires talent that gets the big picture, but also brings something unique and differentiated to the creative exercise.  We focus on developing talent that has strong foundation in concept and craft.  Dependent on their unique ambition and interests, our students also develop an area of specialization while at the VCU Brandcenter. For some XDs, it is user-centered design and related UX disciplines (UI, IA, IxD, Front end-development).  While others are passionate about concepting, designing, building and trialing new experiences that push the envelope of what is technologically possible.  While other students are focused on the production of dynamic multimedia content for new environments.  There are so many emerging opportunities out there, that we leave it up to our students to shape their own views and invent their own visions of the future.   

See the portfolios of current Experience Design students and the current student showcase.

 

Where are some of your graduates working today? 
Since we started, we have placed upwards of 100 CT/XDsOur graduates are in high demand and have gone on to work in the top agencies, client-side, and in successful start-up companies.  They work for global brands, on award-winning work, and some have been recognized as leaders in our industryOur graduates operate under multiple titles in the industry (and this is a good thing).   

 

Any predictions on where this track is going? 
This track is uniquely positioned within our curriculum to be looking upward and outward to what is new and next. What are the trends impacting our industry, where might we experience disruption, how does that point to new opportunities for brands, and what capabilities and skills will we need to develop to lead the creative industry?  That is why we will need to constantly evolve, question our assumptions, and expand our base of knowledge and ability.  It is also the same reason we are hard to define.  That might not be a bad thing after all.
In the spirit of change, I’d love to hear from you. alevasseur@vcu.edu

 

 

The VCU Brandcenter Master’s program, part of VCU’s School of Business, has been recognized by Creativity Magazine, the 4A’s, Ad Age and BusinessWeek as a top graduate program in advertising, marketing, digital media, and design + business.  

The Brandcenter is known within the advertising industry for its intensity, and the students who graduate from the program earn valuable real life experience to develop brands on a global scale. 

The VCU Brandcenter is more than a portfolio school. Students earn a Master’s of Science in business that complements their portfolio of work. This portfolio could contain ad campaigns. It will definitely contain strategically thought out and creatively conceived solutions to business problems. Brandcenter students concentrate in one of the five tracks. They study within their given track, as well as collaborate with all tracks on team projects that culminate in presentations to their faculty, peers and often real world clients.

 

 

VCU Brandcenter launches Experience Design Track

Whenever I go to the VCU Brandcenter’s recruiter session, I get so inspired when I talk to the Creative Technologists. They make some crazy-cool stuff. Tangible, with real-world applications. To be honest, the thought has crossed my mind… “Dang, I should go back to school and learn to do what these cats are learning.”

So it’s exciting to hear the news that the CT track is evolving. It will now be called Experience Design. The curriculum concentrates on the conception, design, prototyping and building of brand experiences  – pushing the envelope on what is technologically possible.

From the Brandcenter:

“We are experience designers.  We dream things.  We make things.  We break things.  And then, we do it again.  We don’t define ourselves by the things that we make.  We do define ourselves by how those things make others think and feel and act. That is why, on any given day you might find us making any number of things:  ads, interfaces, apps, wearables, robots, flying machines, … whatever it takes.”

Last year’s students were in high demand. They will continue to be so as agencies and brands see their increased value. Students interned and were hired by companies like Coca-Cola, The Barbarian Group, BBH, The Martin Agency, AKQA, Deutsch LA, and R/GA, to name a few.

 The track is run by Andrew Levasseur. Here’s what he has to say about it.

If you’re interested, here’s some more info. This is without a doubt where the industry is headed. It’s not surprising to see the school one step ahead.

How to Pick a Portfolio School – updated July 17, 2015

[SPECIAL GUEST POST FROM THE VCU BRANDCENTER’S ASHLEY SOMMARDAHL.]


Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts about portfolio schools. As Director of Student Affairs for the VCU Brandcenter, my POV may be a bit biased but hopefully some of this advice will be helpful. I’ll start by saying a few quick things about the VCU Brandcenter (I can’t help myself!) and then I’ll focus on portfolio schools in general.


The first thing our faculty, students, and alums will tell you about that Brandcenter is that we don’t consider ourselves to be a portfolio school. The Brandcenter is a comprehensive graduate advertising program focused on creativity, commerce (remember, advertising is a business!), collaboration, and culture. We have five tracks (Copywriting, Art Direction, Strategy, Creative Brand Management, and Experience Design), and while the students work together in cross-functional teams, each student develops an expertise in his/her individual track. Assignments at the Brandcenter are as realistic and practical as possible including actual “real world” assignments from companies like Google, Barnes & Noble, Audi, and HBO who’ve asked Brandcenter students to work on some of their most challenging marketing issues. Students are supervised by full-time faculty who’ve all had successful careers as Creative Directors, Planning Directors, Agency Presidents, Designers, Directors, and Editors. Most of our faculty members continue to work or consult in their field in addition to teaching. Brandcenter students earn a Master of Science degree in Business/Branding from Virginia Commonwealth University. Our students tell us the Master’s degree is important to them, more for the long-term, as it may give them an advantage if they choose to take on management roles or teach at the college level in the future. All of that said, the VCU Brandcenter is often included in the portfolio school “category” b/c all of our students (brand management, strategy, creative, and experience design) graduate with portfolios that showcase their strategic and creative thinking abilities. Our copywriters and art directors are often competing for jobs against graduates of Miami Ad School, Creative Circus, Chicago Portfolio School, and Portfolio Center. So, if you’re thinking about attending one of these schools, here are the questions I would ask each portfolio school you apply to (and if they don’t have the answers, that’s a red flag!)


QUESTIONS TO ASK OF PORTFOLIO SCHOOLS YOU ARE APPLYING TO: 
Answers for the VCU Brandcenter are below each question so you’ve got one school’s answers already! 


1.) What is your school’s job placement rate? (That’s why you’re going back to school, right? Most students go to a portfolio school to get a job in advertising vs. to continue on with a Ph.D in advertising.)
The VCU Brandcenter’s job placement rate is consistently 97% within 6 months of graduation. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of job placement rate using the Class of 2015 as an example. For reference, they graduated on May 9, 2015.
Job placement by graduation (May 9) = 25%
Job placement by June 1st = 56%
Job placement by July 1st = 83%

2.)  Can I see a list of where your most recent grads got jobs? (It’s important to see which agencies/companies currently recruit from the school. Who will be recruiting YOU when it’s time for you to graduate?)
Here’s a list of where the VCU Brandcenter Class of 2015 is getting jobs. All of the best agencies are on the list but it’s also important to note that brands like Facebook, Apple, Google, IBM, Coca-Cola, Capital One, Nike, etc. are also recruiting Brandcenter students and alums.

3.) What does the school do to help students get jobs? (Your portfolio/work is important but so are the connections your school has to the industry.)
The Brandcenter hosts a Recruiter Session event each April for recruiters to come meet our graduating students. Over the past 5 years, we’ve consistently had 200+ recruiters from the best agencies in the country attend our event. That’s more than a 2:1 ratio of recruiters to students! Check out who attended in April. 

4.) Can I see the portfolios of your most recent grads? (Look at the “end product” of your investment. Check out the graduates’ portfolios. Are you impressed by their work? Are you envious of their  portfolios? Hopefully, the answer is “yes!”)

5.) What does the school do to help students get summer internships? (I’m sure most grad programs talk about internships, but how many curate the opportunities and facilitate the application process for you?)
During the summer between the 1st and 2nd year of the Brandcenter program, the school facilitates PAID internships at some of the best agencies/ companies all over the US.  We curate all the available opportunities and our students can search the opportunities by agency/company, location or job title.  You can see where the Class of 2016 is interning this summer here. Internships are a great way to apply what you learned in school in the real world and make valuable industry connections. 

6.)  Who are your faculty? (How many of them are full-time vs. adjuncts who have other full-time jobs? How many of them actually worked and/or continue to work in our industry?)



7.)  Do you have salary data for your alums? (You are making a huge investment in yourself and the school you choose to attend. What’s the ROI (return on investment) going to be?)

8.) Why do recruiters and creative directors say they like to hire graduates from your school? (What recruiters and CDs think about the school is important. They are the “gatekeepers” to your dream job.)

9.) Do you stay engaged with your alumni? (Again, grad school is an investment so make sure you choose one that will “pay dividends” long after you’ve graduated.)
Your relationship with the VCU Brandcenter doesn’t end when you graduate. Being that we are a small, elite program, we stay in close touch with our alums. And, our alums stay in close touch with each other helping one another interview, network, etc. We keep a job postings board for our alums so they have access to the newest job openings from agencies and companies all over the world. We also feature the work our alums are doing and we share their work and accolades with our industry contacts.  Check out a few of these recent projects from our alums.

10.) Why do so many Brandcenter alums end up marrying each other? 
I have no idea but it’s one of my favorite “statistics” about our students/alums. We always joke that we should make our recruiting strategy something like, “Come to the Brandcenter to get an amazing portfolio and job + find your soulmate.” 





Makinads is an amazing resource so keep reading what these guys have to say. You may also want to check out books like Pick Me (by Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin) and Hey Whipple, Squeeze This (by Luke Sullivan) and Breaking In: How to Build a Portfolio that Will Get You Hired (by Burks Spencer.) Good luck to all of you as you pursue careers in advertising! Hopefully, I’ll see some of you at the VCU Brandcenter one day!

Ashley Sommardahl
VCU Brandcenter / Director of Student Affairs and Industry Outreach / 804-827-8874 direct / 103 S. Jefferson Street, Richmond, VA 23284

The New 72U

Maria Scileppi doesn’t like to call 72U a portfolio school. Before heading things up there, she was the director of the Chicago Portfolio School, so she knows what a program full of art directors and copywriters looks like.
“This is really strategic art school for the maker,” she says.
Oh, yeah. And it’s backed by and housed in 72andSunny, AdAge’s Agency of the Year.

I had breakfast with Maria last week and asked her about the new program. I gotta say, I’m jealous something like that wasn’t around when I was trying to break into the industry. Here are some of the highlights:

Forget what you thought you knew about 72U. It’s a new program. It used to be 10-months. Now it’s 12 weeks. It used to cost applicants $10,000. Now it’s free. (Students will pay $1,000, which goes toward their final project.)
Six applicants will be selected, and they’ll work individually, in groups of two, in groups of three, and all together. They’ll be sharing space with 72andSunny employees. They won’t be grouped together, and they won’t be separate from the agency. They’ll be seamlessly integrated.
They’ll have a range of assignments. Not all – in fact, very few – will be making ads. One assignment will be to develop and market a brand that embodies who they are. Another will be to fix a broken system. Maria says the purpose of each exercise is to make sure students come out with a stronger creative process. They’ll think and make faster.
Who should apply? Maria says, “It’s an intense curriculum, so people won’t be able to hold a job while they participate. I imagine they’re a couple years out of college. Maybe they got stuck at the wrong job and don’t know how to switch over. They don’t have to have any advertising experience, but they do have to have talent.”
Applications for 72U can be found at 72U.org. The deadline for applications is April 5th. The program will begin May 27th. The next session is planned for October 2013.

If you’ve got questions, reach out to Maria and 72U on Twitter.

Do ad schools turn out the best talent?

If you’re a student in a portfolio school, you need to watch this video on creativity-online.com.

Sorry I can’t embed it. But I’ve got to say I agree with a lot of what they say. (Craft is often neglected, junior creatives struggle to create “scaleable” work, a lot of schools turn out a vanilla product, etc.)

You should spend eight minutes watching then, then go back and reassess your book.

I’m curious to know what some of you portfolio school students think about this. Love to hear your comments.

The Importance of Big Swings


Dave Kingman was a major league baseball player in the ’70s and ’80s. Pitchers feared him, because when he stepped to the plate, there was a decent chance that Kingman was going to go yard. He was one of those players that got fans on their feet when he stepped into the batter’s box. Kingman also has the distinguished honor of being the player with the most homeruns (442) and lowest batting average (.236).

If you are a student, you should strive to be a Dave Kingman.

Last quarter, I taught an advertising competitions class. On the first day, I told my students that they need to swing like they’re putting it in the parking lot or they’re wasting their time. We were submitting work to competitions. Big ones. The One Show, D&AD, etc. Singles do not win those competitions. Doubles off the left-field wall do not win those competitions.

“Take big swings,” while it may be trite, is one of the best pieces of advice I can give students. Even once you get to an agency, your career will be most helped by big swings. Imagine you completely whiff on every assignment (and with big swings come big, ridiculous-looking whiffs) every year, except for one. And with that one non-whiff assignment each year, you win a Cannes Lion. After five years, you’d be the most sought-after young creative in the industry.

Now, you will work for an agency, and they’ll probably prefer a slightly better batting average than that. But when you’re a student, guess what…no agency. And the simple math looks like this:

Say you do 4 campaigns per class for 5 classes (so 20 campaigns total). Let’s take two students and give each campaign they do a score (0-10).

STUDENT 1: 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 = AVG of 8.0

STUDENT 2: 2 2 2 10 2 2 10 9 2 3 4 10 2 10 9 3 4 10 5 10 = AVG of 5.5

By conventional wisdom, Student 1 is far superior. An 8 out of 10, that’s pretty solid. And so consistent. And look at Student 2–she has a failing grade. But, like I also tell my students, nobody in this business gives a shit what your GPA was. Screw conventional wisdom.

So let’s look at it as it will play out in the eyes of those who matter–the creative directors who look at your book.

For your book, you’re going to keep your best pieces and ditch the rest. STUDENT 1 has an 8 book. Again, not bad. But student 2, the flunky, her book looks like this: 10 10 9 10 10 9 10 10. See my point? I hire her.

So be a Dave Kingman. Put it in the parking lot. And when you miss and spin yourself around and fall down in the batter’s box, get back up and swing even harder at the next one. To mix my sports metaphors, nobody talks about the jabs. They talk about the knockout punches.

Hey Peggy, Go to Ad School!


Graduation time is coming up, and every year I talk to a handful of students graduating from undergrad ad programs who want to be writers or art directors. Most of them, like me when I finished college, have had maybe 2-3 creative classes in their advertising curriculum and have a shaky book (alright, mine was worse than shaky).

I recommend to these students that they go to one of the many portfolio programs. Their reaction ranges from taking offense to breaking down and sobbing for twenty minutes. Then they say:

Do I have to?

Of course you don’t have to. LeBron James didn’t go to college. He jumped right into the NBA. So if you’re the LeBron James of advertising, go for it. But you know what? LeBron James played basketball his whole life. He had a better jumpshot than God and could flick dimes off the top of the backboard (so they say). If you’ve got that kind of natural talent, heck, skip college.

But here’s the big thing to mull over: agencies will look at your portfolio, and they’ll compare it to the other portfolios of other students and junior-level writers and art directors looking for jobs. Agencies don’t care whether you have a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree or third-degree black belt. They want to see your book. So your book is competing against other books. People who go to ad schools and portfolio programs usually spend two years focusing just on their books. That’s it.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet on the book that’s been in the gym for two years straight, shooting free throws, running gassers, doing squats.

The only undergrad program I know of that consistently turns out books that can compete with the portfolio program books is the University of Texas. Something in the water there, I guess.

Can I get a job at the bottom answering phones and work my way up? You mean like Peggy on Mad Men? I guess, but that’s a tough road, and when you ask around at the agency you’re answering phones for to see if you can work on assignments, you’ll probably be told to go to ad school.

Can you get a job at a not-so-good agency and work on your book there then move on to a better job? Sure. But by the time you do get to the position you want, you could probably have gone to school and would be ahead of where you are. Same goes for money. Though we’ve said repeatedly that money shouldn’t be a consideration when you take your first job, if you can swing a school loan, you’ll be better off in the long run.

So do you need to go to portfolio school? No. Would I recommend it? Absolutely.