An inside look at what it’s like to work on a Super Bowl ad

Brandcenter alumnus Michael Wilson has been art director on two Super Bowl spots, including a 2014 “The Matrix”-inspired Kia ad starring Laurence Fishburne.

All it takes is 30 seconds. Thirty seconds to make or break your brand. At least, that is, when those seconds take place during one of the most-watched television broadcasts of the year — the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl, which in 2017 had more than 110 million viewers, is one broadcast event that guarantees its audience will stay in the room and pay close attention during the commercials. As many people watch the Super Bowl for the ads as for the game itself.

But as glamorous and fun as those seconds are to watch, creating them is another story. And the stakes are high, with a price tag of more than $5 million for a 30-second spot.

“Coming up with the idea typically takes a mix of two stubborn people — a writer and an art director — a good creative brief, and days of coming up with horribly bad ideas until you find one you don’t hate,” said Michael Wilson, who has been art director on two Super Bowl spots since graduating from the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter in 2011.

Wilson worked on the 2014 “The Matrix”-inspired Kia ad starring Laurence Fishburne and PayPal’s 2016 “new money” spot. He is among the dozens of Brandcenter alumni who have helped create memorable Super Bowl commercials over the years.

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Cheeky greeting cards with a VCU twist

Old Tom Foolery cards designed by VCU graduates Tim Shumar and Jenny Yoon.

If you can’t stand sappy, hackneyed greeting cards, Old Tom Foolery might be your savior. Joel and Lauren Gryniewski founded the tongue-in-cheek greeting card business in 2008, knowing that humor was a stable foundation for relationships and business.

“Lauren and I started Old Tom Foolery because we enjoyed trying to one-up each other with funny greeting cards when we were dating, but we had a hard time finding high-quality letterpress cards that weren’t super feminine looking.” Joel Gryniewski said. “So we decided to create a brand that combined nice letterpress printing with a gender-neutral look and tone.”

Since then, the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter graduates have discovered their brand of humor translates into an acclaimed business. The Greeting Card Association has awarded Old Tom Foolery six LOUIE awards (the greeting card equivalent of an Oscar) since 2008, and awarded the company a Most Humorous award in 2012.

When done well, humor has a way of strengthening the connection between a card giver and recipient,” Joel Gryniewski (M.S.’05/MC) said. “When two people have the same sense of humor, it’s almost like a secret code they share. It’s fun to be able to write cards that help people express their shared, irreverent sense of humor in a way traditional cards can’t.”

In 2016, the Gryniewskis began collaborating with students from their alma matter, allowing them to write and design their own greeting cards. May 2017 graduates Tim Shumar (B.S.’15/MC; M.S.’17/B), Jenny Yoon (M.S.’17/B) and Conor McFarland’s (M.S.’17/B) greetings carry the same strain of humor that make Old Tom Foolery’s cards stand out from the familiar, cringeworthy occasion cards you can find at a drug store or supermarket.

For Shumar, writing greeting cards has a dual purpose.

“As everyone knows, greeting-card writing is a surefire way to attract ladies,” he said. “I did it for them. … [I was also hoping to bring] world peace or [end] hunger. Whichever.”

These Brandcenter alumni have flexed their creative muscles for a successful company. The Gryniewskis themselves see Old Tom Foolery as a product of perseverance.

“Starting a business [and sticking with it] isn’t easy,” Joel Gryniewski said. “Lots of people talk about doing it. But we actually did it. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep it going for the past 10 years.”

Brandcenter students win prestigious Cannes festival competition for second year

Charged with connecting audiences to an idea from a global brand in a way not possible three years ago, a team of students from the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter has won the prestigious AKQA Future Lions competition for the second year in a row.

Limah Taeb, Stanley Hines and Xia Du, all students in the Experience Design track, won the Future Lions award for “BoseNeuro 35,” an idea that uses neuro-technology to send mental commands to Bose headphones, allowing users to interact with music via brain wave technology sensors. Their idea was born from the insight that many people listen to music to help them focus and be productive. The brain wave sensors assess music preferences, allowing for personalized playlists to achieve peak mental performance and productivity.

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Brandcenter alumni shine on massive Super Bowl stage

Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter alumni once again played their part in the annual spectacle that is the Super Bowl, contributing their expertise and talent to the creation of a bevy of commercials that aired around the world during Sunday’s broadcast.

As in past years, the Brandcenter, part of the School of Business, was well-represented in the parade of big-budget ads that serve as an entertaining aside to the big game itself. Ultimately, 11 Brandcenter alumni had a hand in nine of the commercials that aired during Super Bowl LI.

Here are this year’s ads with Brandcenter ties.


TV is good for you and other lessons from Twitter creative director

Jayanta Jenkins speaks during the Brandcenter Friday Forum at the University Student Commons Theater.  Photos by Pat Kane/University Public Affairs

Jayanta Jenkins speaks during the Brandcenter Friday Forum at the University Student Commons Theater.
Photos by Pat Kane/University Public Affairs

When Jayanta Jenkins (B.F.A.’94/A) joined Twitter six weeks ago as its global group creative director — the company’s highest creative role — one thing became immediately clear.

“We need to take the hashtag back,” said Jenkins, a VCU School of the Arts alumnus who delivered the VCU Brandcenter’s Friday Forum lecture last week. “Twitter has some things that it gave to the world that I think brands have taken for granted and other platforms have basically misused. Twitter was the brand that put [the hashtag] into the world.”

Before joining Twitter, Jenkins served as global creative director of advertising at Apple/Beats by Dre. He began his career as an art director at the Martin Agency before going on to senior roles at Wieden & Kennedy and TBWA/Chiat/Day.

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VCU joins elite group to represent U.S. in international organization

Garret Westlake.

Garret Westlake.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s da Vinci Center has been accepted as an official

partner of the European Innovation Academy, an international organization that advances worldwide innovation through the formation of international interdisciplinary student teams alongside corporate partners and venture capitalists.

The elite group that VCU joins includes corporate partners such as Google and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, as well as University of California, Berkeley — the only other U.S. university to embed the EIA program into its curriculum for credit. Other institutions, such as Stanford University, will have faculty speakers and mentors at the event.

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Hollywood ‘cultural attache’ shares Zeitguide to advertising

Brad Grossman.  Photos by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing

Brad Grossman.
Photos by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing

If it weren’t for George Clooney, Brad Grossman might never have had the chance to be the guest speaker at the VCU Brandcenter’s special campaign launch edition of its Friday Forum speaker series.

Grossman, founder and CEO of cultural compendium Zeitguide, delivered “The Zeitgeist of Zeitguide: It’s what you need to know” to a packed Commons Theater last week as part of a series of events kicking off the $750 million Make It Real Campaign for VCU. With information overload growing daily, it’s almost impossible to keep up with the ever-changing cultural landscape. Zeitguide compiles what’s important so business leaders know what to read, why it’s important and how it can inform decision making.

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Making an impact at Apple: Brandcenter student accepts coveted internship

Natasha Sligh.

Natasha Sligh.

Natasha Sligh (B.A.’14/A) considers herself “totally Mac-ed out.” She has never used a PC, ever.

Turns out that lifelong loyalty to Apple Inc. may have served her well. Sligh is a first-year graduate student at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter and she recently accepted a position as user experience intern at Apple in Cupertino, California. As the first intern at Apple from the VCU Brandcenter’s experience design track, she finds herself in uncharted territory.

“There’s no point of reference,” Sligh said. “So I hope that I make a good impression.”

Sligh’s journey to the Brandcenter was filled with obstacles and frustrations. Growing up in Virginia Beach as the daughter of two naval officers, the first time she moved away from home was when she was accepted as an undergraduate in fashion merchandising at VCU’s School of the Arts. She graduated on an accelerated track, and quickly found herself at a crossroads, unsure of what to do with her hard-earned degree. Sligh thought she might work for a fashion house someday but, after moving from job to job in local retail shops, she became determined to use her creative skills in a different way. On a random trip to a mobile phone store with her father, she logged onto an iPad and starting looking for graduate school opportunities. She read what the VCU Brandcenter had to offer and signed up to take the Graduate Record Exam, better known as the GRE, the next day.

“Ever since her application and her interview, we just saw something pretty special in her in terms of her passion and fortitude, work ethic and humility,” said Andrew LeVasseur, professor of experience design at the VCU Brandcenter.

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Brandcenter student earns highly sought international fellowship

Steven Ebert

Steven Ebert

Steven Ebert, who will receive his M.S. in May from the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter in the School of Business, has been offered the 2016-2019 WPP Fellowship, a coveted three-year, postgraduate rotational program with the world’s largest communications services group.

The fellowship comprises three one-year rotations through WPP companies, with each rotation chosen on the basis of the individual’s interests and the group’s needs. Ebert, who is in the communications strategy track at the Brandcenter, will spend his first year at brand consultancy agency Added Value in New York City. Years two and three are to be determined, he said, but will likely be abroad.

A senior executive from WPP’s board will mentor Ebert. At the end of the fellowship, Ebert could have a permanent position with a WPP company.

“The fellowship is a dream come true, really,” Ebert said. “Beyond the professional development, I’m most excited for the mentorship that comes along with all of this.”


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Brandcenter alumna helps roll innovative toy into the marketplace

Photos courtesy Hackaball

It has been the object of games for centuries, so how does a ball become one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2015?

The ball is Hackaball, and it’s a serious technological advancement over the soccer ball or basketball. Using a simple app on a mobile device, children can program Hackaball to play traditional games such as “hot potato” or they can create their own unique gameplay. With the correct coding, the ball will also change colors, vibrate and make sounds at the programmer’s whim. Put simply, Hackaball is a computer you can throw around with your friends in the backyard.

“The Time list came something like eight months after the initial launch, and it was just a massive validation,” said Rachel Mercer, a 2012 Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter graduate. “We do genuinely believe it’s a very unique product in the space, and we’re very proud to see it on that list.”

Made by Many, a London-based consultancy where Mercer was a senior product strategist, invented the Hackaball prototype as a side project before placing it on Kickstarter to raise cash. The Kickstarter campaign raised $240,000 and Mercer’s role in the early days of Hackaball was to create a strategy to get it on the market quickly. Mercer and her strategy teammates tested Hackaball during a series of play dates with London-based families.

“We needed to know whether or not kids would play with it more than once, what moms and dads felt like it needed to do in order to be worth the price tag and what the price should even be in the first place,” Mercer said.

Hackaball is marketed as a fun option that bridges the gap between technology and socialization — a simple toy that separates children from their computer and tablet screens, yet helps them learn the logic of programming and encourages creative thinking and outside play. To Mercer, it was also paramount that it be a tech toy designed for and marketed to both boys and girls.

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