Where legends are made: At Brandcenter’s reverse job fair, students tell stories to stand out from the crowd

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Why does Taylor Swift hate Nima Khalilian?

“Oh, that,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, every hate song she makes now is about me.”

Khalilian incurred Swift’s wrath last summer during his internship at Coca-Cola. He was on a call with Swift — Diet Coke’s spokesperson — promoting marketing ideas. Khalilian brought up DJ Calvin Harris, Swift’s boyfriend, during the conversation and Swift was not happy.

“She was just like, ‘Why do you want to bring my boyfriend into this?” and ‘I want to do this on my own,’ and ‘Who are you?’” the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter student recalled. “And I was like, ‘Oh [crap], I’m an intern.’”

The story came up during the VCU Brandcenter’s annual reverse career fair this week. It was just one of 20 tidbits advertising agency recruiters could learn about the creative brand management student if they stopped at his table.

During the two-day recruiting event, students, rather than recruiters, man the tables. At the advice of their professors, the soon-to-be grads adorned their tabletops with items that projected a story about themselves — offering more than what could be learned from their resumes or websites.

Nic Johnson (right), a VCU Brandcenter student, speaks with a recruiter at the reverse career fair.
Nic Johnson (right), a VCU Brandcenter student, speaks with a recruiter at the reverse career fair.

“We need to have a story that makes us interesting to stand out from everyone else,” said creative brand management student Nic Johnson. “Because everyone has a resume that’s essentially the same. So you just want to be remembered by the people who are interviewing you for something other than ‘I interned at so-and-so agency.’”

We need to have a story that makes us interesting to stand out from everyone else.

Johnson’s story is one of soup dumplings and maneki-nekos. He had a couple of the maneki-nekos — or lucky cats — on display, and explained that they’re good luck in China.

“I went to China a couple of years ago and I adopted it [as a good-luck charm]. … So it’s like my whole thing. I want to be remembered as the lucky cat guy.’”

Johnson rounded out his Chinese-themed table with a bowl of fortune cookies. Each contained lucky numbers (Johnson’s phone number and email address) and advice to “Enjoy the good luck a companion (Nic Johnson) brings you.”

Khalilian’s table included various specialty Coke bottles from his internship days, a bowl of gummy bears — his “brain snack” — and a bowl with 20 slips of paper, each with a personal question that recruiters could randomly choose to ask him, such as “Why does Taylor Swift hate you?”

If the Swift incident had happened earlier, his career perhaps would have taken a different trajectory. As it was, Khalilian nearly didn’t apply at all to the Brandcenter — even though it was his Holy Grail.

“Only legends come out of that school,” he said. “The professors’ resumes speak for themselves.”

Khalilan said he took a class with Mark Fenske, a Brandcenter professor, when he was an undergraduate and was scared of him. He was intimidated and reluctant to even apply to the school.

“I put [the Brandcenter] on this pedestal,” he said. “Which it belongs on.”

Today, he wishes he had spent more time with Fenske.

“I’ve used a lot of his lessons, not only in creative thinking classes and in creative problem-solving, but in traditional business problems,” Khalilian said. “I use a lot of his tools just to answer those. I love him and I don’t think he knows it. He puts a fire under you.”

Nima Khalilian (right), a VCU Brandcenter student, speaks with a recruiter at the reverse career fair.
Nima Khalilian (right), a VCU Brandcenter student, speaks with a recruiter at the reverse career fair.

After graduating in 2011 from VCU, where he majored in strategic advertising and political science, Khalilian moved to Washington, D.C., to work at 3TI Consulting Firm. Three years later, the company sent him to the Paris School of Business to earn his MBA.

Even with a master’s, attending the Brandcenter remained on Khalilian’s personal bucket list and he decided it was finally time to apply. His chosen track – creative brand management – blends business fundamentals with branding, creativity and communication strategies.

“The biggest difference between our program and an MBA is that …  here, there’s no pattern,” he said. “Good luck finding one. We all approach problems from a different angle and because of that, the solutions are very different.”

Solving traditional problems in nontraditional ways is just one reason the Brandcenter is esteemed in the advertising world, attracting nearly 280 recruiters and headhunters to its career fair. Job placement rate for Brandcenter graduates is consistently an astounding 97 percent at top agencies and companies.

Colin Moffett of Artemis Ward and Chris Maier of Made by Little don’t attend recruiting events at other schools, but came down from Washington, D.C., because the Brandcenter is known far and wide and the event is “a great model to meet a lot of people and have a lot of conversations in this short amount of time, and to see them in their natural school environment,” Moffett said.

Maier, who just started his own company after working at a larger firm in Chicago, didn’t come this year to recruit, but to meet the impressive spectrum of students and to see how the Brandcenter defines certain disciplines.

“I knew these are going to be the people in the industry shaping the future, so I wanted to figure out where they’re headed and also let them know where I’m headed over the next couple of years so we can stay on each other's radar,” he said.

One thing many recruiters noticed beyond the impressive work and enthusiasm was the lack of pretension among the students.

“I’d say, probably to a person, everybody recommended that we either go talk to someone else, or they talked about who they worked with on the project,” Maier said. “So there was a certain amount of humility and camaraderie there.”

In fact, Khalilian praised his classmates almost more than he spoke of himself, calling Johnson “one of the most creative guys in this school.”

“The happiest I’ve been was at the Brandcenter,” he said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. We have some of the best copywriters in the United States, here. Brilliant art directors, experienced designers, and the professors are like — these aren’t my professors, these are my brothers and sisters. You won’t see that anywhere else. Me and [Johnson], we’ll bump heads just like my blood brothers do.”

After two years together, Khalilian, Johnson and their classmates probably know more about each other than their families do. So Khalilian knows that even though Johnson has a maneki-neko tattooed on his arm, he hates actual cats. And Johnson probably knows the answers to each of Khalilian’s 20 questions.

Like why is Nima Khalilian still a Wizards fan?

To view a list of the 2016 graduates and their portfolios, visit


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