Making Smarter Marketers

It’s class time at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Adcenter, and students are idea jamming. This is standard practice at most postgrad advertising schools, but the Adcenter has added an intriguing twist: The guy in flip-flops pitching his idea for BMW’s next campaign could be an art director or copywriter in the making, but he also may become someone considerably more important: a smarter ad-agency client.

Last September, the Adcenter launched its Creative Brand Management track, the first master’s degree program to immerse business and marketing types in creative classes with their future agency partners. Nine students are pursuing the two-year curriculum, combining such MBA fare as “Managerial Accounting and Quantitative Techniques” with sessions in “Creative Thinking” and “Cultural Exploration.” They collaborate with account planners and art directors, forcing themselves out of their numbers-driven comfort zone.

The goal is to produce ad clients who regard creativity as more than an afterthought. Typically, “a marketing person has grown up narrowing down, finding the needle in the haystack, whereas creative folks come at problems from the complete opposite position–how can I color outside the lines?” says the program’s creator, Rick Boyko, who left his post as chief creative officer at Ogilvy in 2003 to head the Adcenter.

A few weeks into the program, students seem to be crossing that divide. Frank Gregory, a 22-year-old marketer, raves about a class that challenged him to trace the origins of the George Foreman Grill from the American Constitution. “I learned . . . you can link anything, that’s how creativity sparks,” he says. Not bad for a future client.