Helayne Spivak Takes Over as Managing Director of VCU Brandcenter

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After almost a year since VCU Brandcenter began its search for a new managing director, the school has found one, and like her predecessor, Rick Boyko, she comes from the agency world.

Helayne Spivak
Helayne Spivak

Helayne Spivak, the chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness in New York, will be the new managing director at the school, starting Aug. 15.

"I've known Helayne for a long time and thought she'd be the perfect candidate," said Mr. Boyko. "She knows how to manage people, but also how to move things in a direction that is going to be current and contemporary. She also has a great wit about her."

Ms. Spivak said that working with the pharmaceutical and health-care businesses for six years has taught her patience, and how to work within bureaucratic structures -- which can be much more nuanced in academia. "Health-care gives you a very definite box to work in, and that should help," she said. "But I'm really looking forward to working in an environment with increased freedom of thought."

Ms. Spivak began her career in 1976 as a copywriter at the now-defunct Ally & Gargano, leaving the agency in 1986 as an associate creative director. She was also an executive creative director at Hal Riney & Partners and chief creative officer at Y&R New York, Ammirati & Puris and JWT, New York.

She even had a stint doing stand-up comedy in Chicago, and bought a 274-seat fine-dining Italian restaurant in Chicago's Northbrook to "learn what hard work was really like." She closed that in 2003 and went to freelance for Energy BBDO, where she ended up leading creative for Bayer's Aleve and One-a-Day Vitamins.

"It really seemed like everything I had done in my life until now and led up to this," said Ms. Spivak. "Everything I've done has led to a certain skill set that could be used in teaching."

The selection comes at a time of change for the Brandcenter, which come fall will be integrating with the Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Business. That integration will lead to more shared faculty, and students graduating from the Brandcenter will now earn a masters of business in their chosen concentration, instead of a masters in mass communication.

The school began its search in May last year, kicking things off with a website, TheWhoSearch.com, which used social media to virtually search for potential candidates, and allowed users to vote for who they thought would be a good pick.

That site didn't play a part in actually finding Ms. Spivak, but Mr. Boyko said it helped in getting the word out about the hunt for a new managing director.

The search committee, led by Mike Hughes, the chairman and president of The Martin Agency, as well as Ed Grier, the dean of the business school, combed through nominations as well as their personal networks. Thirty people made the first cut and that number was whittled down to six, who were brought in to a conference room at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., and interviewed over the course of what Jerry Shereshewsky, who is also on the board, called a "very long Saturday."

"The goal was really to give each candidate one last opportunity to tell their story, and to blow our socks off," said Mr. Shereshewky. "Helayne won hands down."

Ms. Spivak really knew how to "read the room," he said, adding that she understood not only what people were saying, but also their body language. "She was funny, and clearly in command."

Mr. Boyko, who took the helm of the Brandcenter nine years ago when he was chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather North America, was known for changing the curriculum of the school eight or nine times, as social media entered our lives and so much changed with digital and mobile. "Helayne understood that it had to keep changing, to keep up with changes in the world and the industry," said Mr. Shereshewsky.

For business-school dean Mr. Grier, that momentum and need for change were the focal points during the search. "It has to be someone who is current and who is well-connected," he said.

Mr. Hughes said was looking for someone "associated with big ideas and good thinking." Ms. Spivak, he added, has a "big and broad" view of the industry.

During the search, the issues were finding a candidate who not only had credibility in the ad business, but who could also function in the more bureaucratic environment of the university. Many people involved in the search were against finding a traditional academic, feeling that the candidate needed real industry experience.

While Mr. Boyko is "done" as of June 30, he said he is "happy to stay on and give guidance," depending on what Ms. Spivak wants. "Many people have asked me to remain on the board, but it's up to them and Helayne," he said. "I don't want to be sitting there saying 'This is how I would have done it.'"

As for Ms. Spivak, her first mission is to go on a listening tour around the school. She plans to set up group lunches with faculty and students and meet as many people as possible. "Rick put it in a beautiful place, and I am not going to change anything until I know what it is I'm changing." She also doesn't plan to teach, unless she finds that there is really a hole in the curriculum that she can fill, she said.

She's also got the integration with the business school to push through, and of course, fundraising, which is going to be a big part of her mandate, since she has to raise enough money to help students who can't afford to come to school and reach out to alumni and the ad industry to find sponsors and donors.

And she has one more thing to do: Having been a lifelong resident of Chicago and New York and an ardent public-transit user, Ms. Spivak will also have to learn how to drive. She starts driving school in Richmond this summer.

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