Capitol Communicator is running “Up Close and Personal” profiles of communicators in the mid-Atlantic. In this profile, we feature Vann Graves. Photography for the series is by award-winning Cade Martin. Wardrobe, hair and makeup by Michelle Torres.
Vann, please provide us a short bio.
I was in the advertising industry for nearly 30 years before joining the VCU Brandcenter in 2018. I got my start as an intern at BBDO New York and worked my way to Creative Director before joining McCann and J. Walter Thompson. I’ve been fortunate to work on cool projects throughout my career, like producing a song with Kanye West for a Pepsi spot, spending time with Don Draper (aka Jon Hamm), shooting a commercial with Madonna, and creating a Disney character (Tripp from Disney’s “Planes”). My time in advertising was also punctuated by brief stints as a stay-at-home dad and captain in the U.S. Army.
Are you involved in any other organizations?
Currently, I serve on The 3% Movement’s advisory board, an initiative that celebrates the notion that diversity = creativity = profitability. The Movement has been integral in increasing the number of women and people of color in creative director roles. I’m also a big supporter and proud graduate of MAIP – Multicultural Advertising Intern Program – through the 4As.
What are the things you are most proud of?
Professionally, I am proud to be on and also assemble great teams of people. While I was at McCann, I formed one of the most talented, diverse teams I’ve ever worked with. Personally, I am proud to be married to my amazing wife and being a father to my wonderful kids — together, we are affectionately known as Team Graves. I actually have a picture of both “teams” in my office to serve as a daily reminder of the extraordinary things a team can accomplish.
Who is your personal role model?
My father. My father grew up in segregated Little Rock, Arkansas, before moving to Richmond, which was also segregated at the time. Among many things, he taught me that no one is perfect, so we must be fair; to strive to be the best person you can be; and, even if it scares you, always do the right thing in spite of adversity. To put this into perspective, my father was one of the Richmond 34, a group of Virginia Union University students who participated in a non-violent protest in 1960 at the Thalhimers department store. My father and the other students were arrested as a result of their sit-in, but the trespass conviction was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
What advice helped you in your career?
Along with some of the advice I just noted, my father passed on that “we shouldn’t be afraid to make hard decisions that create the greatest good.” For me today, that means making important decisions that put Brandcenter students’ needs first. We all face difficult choices, but it’s a crucial first step to remember your “why.”
What advice do you have for others?
Always believe in yourself and don’t let anyone steal your joy or your dreams. If there’s something you think you want to do, and truly believe it’s your calling, follow it. If you don’t, you’ll spend every day regretting it.
People told me I was crazy to go into advertising. Yet, here I am, with a 30-year career that started as an intern in an industry I knew nothing about. If I had listened to the naysayers, I don’t think I would have ever left home.
What’s on your Spotify and Pandora playlists?
I have eclectic taste, but some of my favorites include Nina Simone, Prince, New Order, Depeche Mode, and Cardi B.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
Belle Harlem in New York City. It’s a small, intimate environment that’s akin to being in a friend’s home. The menu is constantly changing and everything’s made to order in front of you. You have to check it out!
Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?
Between being a husband, dad and director of an amazing graduate program, I’m also pursuing a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a lot to juggle, but I’m lucky to have the support of the teams around me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my wife, who inspires me to be better every single day.