Brandcenter at VCU says goodbye to two of its trailblazers
By Leila Ugincius and Leah Landry
The Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University — the two-year graduate program focused on developing the best creative problem-solvers in the world of brands — is a pressure cooker.
“[It] prepares everyone who passes through its doors by being uncompromising,” said Kris Kennedy, a 2009 graduate. “You have to go through the fire just to get admitted, to prove you want this. Then the program starts. … Class loads that are beyond humanly possible. The teachers are demanding. Only greatness is accepted.”
And, thanks to the world-class industry leaders teaching those classes, only greatness is produced.
When your teachers have worked with the likes of CoverGirl, Sprint and Kelloggs, the pressure is on.
“But it’s the kind of pressure that turns coal into diamonds,” Kennedy, a senior creative strategist at Reddit, said. “My classmates are some of the best diamonds in the industry.” Kennedy credits every teacher he had at Brandcenter as vital in his journey to where he is now.
At the end of the 2023 spring semester, Brandcenter is saying goodbye to two of its professors as Caley Cantrell and Peter Coughter prepare to retire.
Cantrell instilled in her students the power to harness their creative problem-solving potential.
Caley Cantrell didn’t know anything about advertising as a career until she was already a sophomore at the University of Virginia.
Thanks to a student case competition, in which teams work through a complex case study, that all changed.
“Once I discovered what [advertising] was all about … it was all I wanted to do,” she said.
She had exactly one job offer in advertising when she graduated from UVA — “but one is all you need to get started,” — and headed to New York. She moved back to Virginia to work at the Martin Agency, the venerated Richmond advertising firm. When asked to teach strategy as an adjunct in 2007, she immediately said yes.
After two semesters, she joined the faculty full time.
“Over the past 16 years, Caley has had an unwavering commitment to the Brandcenter and its students,” said Vann Graves, Ed.D., executive director of the Brandcenter. “From balancing large course loads to spearheading curriculum changes to conducting and publishing research, she has worked tirelessly and enthusiastically on behalf of the Brandcenter to ensure the current and future success of the program. Her efforts, contributions and dedication are truly unmatched.”
Cantrell never could have imagined when she started that so much time would have gone by, she said. “But it feels like a blink.”
She stayed as long as she did because of the students.
“They challenge us, they work tremendously hard and I never cease to be amazed at their ideas and how they execute them,” Cantrell said. “I also enjoyed rethinking and reimagining our curriculum so that the classes and outcomes stayed fresh and relevant.”
As a professor of strategy and creative brand management, Cantrell has instilled in her students the power of harnessing their creative problem-solving skills to fight anything from climate change to social injustice.
“Caley Cantrell taught me to think beyond ads, and instead think about solving problems first,” Kennedy said.
Over the years, Cantrell has seen a lot of change. But change is necessary and Brandcenter has worked hard to stay ahead of the industry, she said.
“Change is hard and sometimes you aren’t immediately sure whether it is good or bad,” she said. “Through new courses and assignments, new faculty and adjuncts, and the support and engagement of our alums, we’ve evolved. … We have the great good fortune to have moved closer to the main campus and into a building [renovated] specifically for our program. We are now aligned with the School of Business. And I feel certain there will be new ideas and programs to look forward to.”
Cantrell counts herself lucky for having had the opportunity to work around such creativity and camaraderie that the Brandcenter fosters.
“It is the perfect blend of blood, sweat, tears, laughter, surprise, preparation, lack of preparation and hard work,” she said. “I imagine it’s like the feeling of an ice skater throwing themselves into the air, spinning four or five times and sticking the landing.
“Brandcenter students ‘stick the landing.’”
A master at winning presentations, Coughter leaves behind a legacy of storytelling and persuasion.
Coughter didn’t expect to become a professor. After receiving his graduate degree at Syracuse University, he co-founded the advertising agency Siddall, Matus, & Coughter in Richmond, where he learned how to pitch on the fly.
“We went into business with no accounts, no billing, no business, no revenue of any kind,” Coughter said. “What we had to do, and we figured it out pretty quickly, is we were going to have to get really good at this strange thing called presenting. Presenting meant going into rooms where people didn’t know us, where we had no reputation and convincing them to give us their business, their money.”
Coughter became so adept at the art of persuasion that he helped Diane Cook-Tench — a one-time associate creative director of his agency — develop a pitch to VCU for a graduate program where students could learn about all things advertising, branding and creative problem-solving.
That program became the VCU Adcenter — the precursor to the Brandcenter — which opened in 1996.
Around the time he left Siddall to start a one-person consulting company, Coughter & Company, Cook-Tench asked him to join her school.
“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a shot. What do you want me to teach?’ She said, ‘I don’t know, make something up,’” Coughter said. “Where that eventually led to was the need for me to teach kids how to be better presenters. Nobody in any business will succeed if they can’t go into a room and sell themselves and their ideas successfully.”
That was 25 years ago.
“I had no idea I was going to stay that long, but I really enjoyed it,” he said.
And he was good at it.
“Peter Coughter taught me how to not just have an idea, but how to get everyone to believe in it just as much as I do,” Kennedy said.
“Peter’s contribution to the Brandcenter is evident in how much emphasis we place on the art of persuasion in our program and in how skilled our graduates are at presenting,” Graves said. “His passion for teaching the next generation of storytellers the fundamentals of winning pitches has directly impacted the careers and lives of countless people. The art of the pitch will always be embedded in what we teach at the Brandcenter, thanks to Peter.”
Teaching both students in the class and leading workshops across the world is what led him to write “The Art of the Pitch: Persuasion and Presentation Skills That Win Business.”
The book discusses the ineffective ways that people pitch, one of them being the misuse of PowerPoint.
To be clear, Coughter doesn’t dislike PowerPoint, he said, but he dislikes the way it’s used, citing too many bullet points and presenters reading directly off the slides as examples.
“PowerPoint can be a powerful, powerful medium. It is, ironically, the best way to show creative work. Big, colorful, powerful images, and yet the worst way to communicate ideas,” he said. “PowerPoint should be the support. It may even amplify your point, but it shouldn’t be the story. You need to have a story. The less you put on a slide, the more you can say.”
Cantrell and Coughter may be retiring, but their legacy continues. Most of the professors who are taking over their courses were once their own students or longtime colleagues. Recent additions to the Brandcenter faculty roster include Michael Chapman, chief client officer at The Martin Agency; Jerry Hoak, executive creative director at The Martin Agency; Stacy Thomas, CEO and Founder, Good Run Research; and Rich Weinstein, who was a former partner at Arts & Letters Creative Co. and account leader at Wieden+Kennedy.