Students for Hire

My Recruiting Journey to VCU Brandcenter

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Mat Zucker Mat Zucker
Perhaps it was the small white mound, clearly meant to look like cocaine, sitting next to the art director's portfolio with a straw: "Welcome recruiters!"

Or the tempting stack of cherry jam jars inviting us to take one in exchange for looking at the planner's portfolio.

Or the stylish purple rubber wristbands with the copywriter's portfolio URL.

No matter how the students at VCU Brandcenter dressed their tables to draw attention to their two years of work, you could feel the passion before you even met them. These were professionally trained ad grads with a clear CTA: I'm great. Hire me.

This was my first time at VCU Brandcenter's agency recruitment days. Nanette, our agency recruiter, and I flew down to join dozens of other agencies to meet over two days some of the brightest copywriters, art directors, planners and brand managers entering the business.

This program knows what it's doing and makes it easy in this market to connect with talent. The first half of day one we could browse their portfolios without the students present. That afternoon and the following day the grads were there with their work and we could speak to whomever we wanted -- about them, about their work, about us.

The students had finished their term days earlier and had been up into the wee hours preparing for all of us. Elaborate materials. Impeccable portfolios (online and physical). Clever giveaways (e.g. little white packets of powder).

Nanette and I were delighted to find strong copywriting, gorgeous art direction, sophisticated insights and artful communication strategies. More important, to our delight, we saw ideas and how they connected among the planners and creatives.

On the short flight back to New York, I suffered from two conflicting emotions:

First, I was optimistic about the industry's future. The caliber was top-notch and the work would intimidate and motivate my own staff. These grads were all about ideas, their work rooted in insights. The work was across channels and in many of the portfolios you could see solid digital expression of ideas. The collaboration model among the brand manager, planner and creatives really showed as you went from portfolio to portfolio and could see the strategy for, say, a Boy Scouts campaign expressed in work that resulted in every discipline. Most would say they're media neutral; they really just want to do great work, however that ends up being best expressed.

At the same time, I couldn't shake some disappointment. In a generation that I thought included digital natives, the work wasn't. There were decent digital ideas, sure, but not bold ones. The uses of technology for the idea would be fine if I saw it in my generation's books, but I was secretly hoping for more from them. I mean, I have to be patient at work and with partner agencies, but can't I hope for more in those who will take my job soon enough? And while my staff would be impressed by some of the conceptual ideas, they would shrug off a lot of what they saw in digital as a bit old school.

My advice to present and future grads is to keep the idea central, but beef up your use of digital. Not in quantity, but in adventurousness and in role. In some cases, such as a campaign for the Boy Scouts of America, you might find your target is to be found first online and your campaign should center on engagement there.

In the end, I wish I had purchased some extra one-way plane tickets to take a few grads back with me to New York. These folks are good. They are smart. They are highly creative and passionate. They know ideas and they know what they want. So my advice to agencies is:

Next year, not only attend but get involved in some of these top school programs and perhaps we can help influence the use of digital in the work.

In the mean time, there's this year: If you see a VCU portfolio, be sure to give it a good look. They're going to get great jobs -- I hope a few from me.
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