How Nana Dadzie Took His Strategic Mind From Higher Ed to Advertising
Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. Meet Nana Dadzie, who transformed a 15-year career in higher education into an advertising strategy role at Arts & Letters Creative Co.
What were you before?
Before finding my way into advertising, I worked in several leadership roles at Virginia Commonwealth University in the Student Affairs, New Student & Family Programs, and Business Services departments.
My final role was serving as the business lead for RamTech, VCU's on-campus technology resource partnered with Apple and Dell. I was responsible for leading a team of two full-time staff and 10 student employees, in addition to the full scope of operations of the department, including buying, inventory management, in-store sales, e-commerce, merchandising, marketing, product launches, brand activations, customer experience and client management.
What triggered your reinvention(s)?
In a 1:1 meeting with my manager, I was asked, "How are things?"
I replied, "I'm bored."
In my 15-year career in higher education, I arrived at a point where I felt like there was nothing left to be done.
I wanted to break some rules. I wanted to do things that looked and felt more like the passions I had outside of work, like building a brand that executes large-scale events and impactful activations in RVA (ABigAssCookout, Paint Your Future, etc.), or building a streetwear brand from the ground up (Chilalay) with two of my best friends, or pursuing my dream of making a documentary about sneakers and hip-hop with the help of my mentor/friend Bobbito Garcia.
I was determined to continue to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams, to continue to build a future from my own creativity.
What did the first steps look like?
I sent a cold email to the then-new executive director of the VCU Brandcenter, Vann Graves. In my life, I had never personally known or spoken to someone who looked like me, and who made a living off of their creative interests.
That email led to a meeting with Vann where we discussed many things, but more importantly, he invited me to apply to the graduate program (to which I replied, "Nah, I'm good on going back to school").
We talked briefly about the strategy track at VCU Brandcenter and it piqued my interest. It felt like a natural fit for who I was. An obligatory Google search of "What is advertising strategy?" followed, coupled with a visit to see my good friend Bruce, who was working at Wieden + Kennedy NYC at the time. I interviewed a few strategists, got a glimpse of "agency life," and completed my application a few weeks later.
What was one hard obstacle to overcome?
I was 37 when I left my 15-year career at VCU. I knew more than 90 percent of the incoming students at Brandcenter were 21-23, and I wasn't sure how well I would connect.
Even further, I was a bit worried about the possibility of job prospects coming out of school, being that I might not be the most "economical" choice for agencies with the experience I bring to the table.
What was easier than you thought?
Connecting with students AND staff.
Turns out all the time I spent supervising students and authentically building relationships with them was more helpful in connecting with my student peers than I expected.
And the staff, people like Caley Cantrell, Kevin Rothermel, Scott Witthaus and others, became true friends of mine.
What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?
Your past and your passion are probably more relevant than you know. Your past and your passion are EXTREMELY RELEVANT to any professional endeavor you may want to pursue. Never let those things be detached from what you plan to bring to the table.
To this day, I don't believe I was hired for any school project I did. I was hired because of the diverse thinking I bring to the table from my professional and very personal experiences.
Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?
- Vann Graves (executive director, VCU Brandcenter). He believed in me and saw something I didn't.
- Caley Cantrell (head of strategy track, VCU Brandcenter). I always tell her, "Vann is the reason I came, you are the reason I stayed."
- Peter Coughter (professor, Persuasion, VCU Brandcenter). The first person to truly make me believe I could command a stage with my physical and vocal presence … and also the person who sent me to record my VO demo.
- Every other professor at the school. The support was surreal, the connections were organic and authentic.
- Andy Grayson (director of strategy, Arts & Letters). For taking a chance on someone who had never worked in advertising before, and still doesn't consider himself an "advertising industry person."
- Friends and family. The ones who rooted for me like I was playing in the NBA championship.
What has this fundamentally changed for you?
There's a certain freedom you carry when you're doing exactly what you want and not afraid of what happens next. I'm loving this freedom, and don't plan on losing it … ever.
I look back on my last year of grad school at VCU Brandcenter, what I accomplished during that time, and how life has changed since then. The freedom has been more than fruitful.
In that last year of grad school, during a pandemic, I:
- Worked on the A&L team as a freelance strategist that won the NBA on ESPN business.
- Became the voice talent of the NBA on ESPN campaign.
- Led and won several live client pitches for VCU Brandcenter (Sephina Cognac, The One Club for Creativity, DNA Seattle).
- Helped Steph Curry and his sneaker brand launch two models of his shoe (even convincing him and his mom to Zoom bomb an Oakland teacher, and fund over 130 education grants in CA/NC).
- Continued to build my brand ABAC and our house of events and executions.
- Released a short film, "Silence Is…", in response to the unjust killings of Black men at the hands of law enforcement.
- Released a beer under the ABAC brand, raising $10,000 for Black Girls Code and the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People and Families Movement (I canned 1,000 beers while in class on Zoom once).
- Relaunched Paint Your Future, a campaign leveraging creativity to inspire the next generation of voters.
NONE of this would have been possible without making that decision to make a change, take a chance and reinvent myself.
Do you think you could go back/do you want to?
Hell no. And hell no I don't want to. I loved that career, but as I tell all my friends and former colleagues, "Leaving and going back to school was the best decision I made in 15 years."
Tell us your reinvention song.
"I Did It My Way" by Jay Z. The title says it all. The Sinatra sample seals it. This was the title of my VCU career exit playlist, and the theme song that has driven me for the past 20 years. A linear path doesn't suit me. What's next for me will always simply be what's best for me.
How would you define yourself now?
What my résumé says:
Business manager, ESPN (brand), NBA on ESPN.
What I tell people:
I'm a multi-hyphenate creative with a passion for building brands, experiences and relationships.
A strategist. A business manager. A hustler. A leader.
In a job interview once, a recruiter described me as being asterisk-shaped, opposed to T-shaped. And that was a perfect description of who Nana Dadzie is.