Employers line up to meet students at ‘reverse career fair’

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This week, Tom Wilson lined up with hundreds of recruiters from national agencies and corporations for a chance to talk with graduating Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter students.

If you think this is a typical story about career fairs, read that sentence again. The recruiters waited in line for a chance to speak with the students.

At the Brandcenter’s annual two-day recruiting session, dubbed the “reverse career fair,” students set up tables displaying their work. Prospective employers view the portfolios ahead of time so they have specific questions prepared for the students when they approach them.

For Wilson, creative director at JWT Atlanta, it was an impressive sight. Like most of the representatives there, he remembers what it was like to be an advertising grad student meeting with recruiters.

Only for him, “It was just 20 students going down to a room,” he said. “There were about 15 recruiters and we were the ones going table to table. Now the recruiters come to them.”

Wilson wasn’t lamenting how kids these days don’t know how good they have it. Rather, he was commenting on the sterling reputation the Brandcenter has built over the years — a reputation that started with the inaugural graduating class of 1998, of which a proud Wilson was a part.

“It sounds cliche, but the first class kind of set the bar pretty high and each class has measured up to that point or exceeded it, so our reputation now throughout the industry is great,” he said. “When people look at the resume — even though I’m a number of years in — I may be talking to an HR person or a creative director who also went to the VCU Brandcenter.”

Even for industry insiders who aren’t alumni, the Brandcenter’s reputation speaks for itself.

Wongdoody, an ad agency in Seattle and Los Angeles, and New York-based 360i each sent recruiters for the first time this year.

“I’m very impressed,” said Wongdoody’s Lori Hicks. “The old agency I worked for hired someone about two years ago from the Brandcenter and she was incredible. I mean she just hit the ground running. They know so much and have such a good skill set. It’s the place to get planners — and I went to Miami Ad School, so for me to even say that … is probably a little traitorous.”

Like Hicks, Erika Colon, a creative recruiter at 360i, has also worked with Brandcenter alumni.  

“You guys have an excellent reputation. I actually have some internal employees that I’m close with that are alumni from here,” she said, adding that she hired two more alumni a few weeks ago. “I’ve actually been focusing mainly on the copywriters and art directors, but there’s two strategists I’m going to be meeting with soon, so I’m excited to see what they’re going to offer.”

Many of the students already have job offers, but didn’t want to miss out on the networking opportunity. They make contacts at this event that they keep through the years.

“This industry is really small, so your relationships in your network are really important,” said Nicole Weaver, creative brand manager. “I actually have an offer on the table, which is really exciting, but this event is really, really great because it’s an opportunity to meet people who work at all the agencies that we see great creative work coming from.”

Moreover, Weaver added, in addition to meeting agency peers, the event presented the opportunity to reach out to corporations outside the industry.

“I feel like a lot of other huge corporations don’t really know about us yet,” she said. “[With] people that are hiring brand managers, we’re slowly getting our name out there to the big industry outside of the advertising agencies. It’s really exciting to see what we can do and where everyone’s going.”

Some large corporations are taking note.

Andy Thieman, a creative lead with General Mills’ marketing department, said that while the consumer packaged goods company doesn’t have a creative department that it needs to bolster with writers and art directors, it does need strategic thinkers.   

“This is the place to get all the young, hot talent,” he said. “We’re especially interested in the brand management track, so the strategists. … Their work is very smart. They think differently. It’s a nontraditional track.”

This year’s event broke records with more than 160 companies sending more than 250 representatives.

“It’s a great turnout,” Wilson said. “I think the work has been spectacular. It’s good to see where we were 17 years ago, to what it is now, which is absolutely amazing.”

To view a list of the 2015 graduates and their portfolios, visit


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