Cover Story: Atlanta's school for Mad Men

The Creative Circus teaches its students how to be Don Draper without being an asshole

It was October last year, on the day he turned 29, that Justin Bajan's dreams came true: The concept that he and his team partner had pitched as a Kia Optima TV commercial was chosen to run during the Super Bowl.

The concept had started simply enough. While staring out of his office window at Los Angeles-based ad agency David & Goliath, Bajan threw out the question, "What if we did something with dreams?" That led to the following storyboard: A married couple sleeps. The Sandman sprinkles pixie dust on the mother, who dreams of riding a white stallion in a meadow with a gorgeous romantic suitor. The Sandman slips and throws way too much dust on the man, who then has a super-intense man-tasy: A supermodel waves the starting flag so he can ride his Kia Optima around a racetrack at top speed. On the track's infield are a cowboy riding a rhino, an MMA fighter taking out his opponent, lumberjacks cutting a 50-foot sub sandwich, and a band providing a rock soundtrack while a grandstand full of bikini-clad women cheer him on.

Smash-cut to Bajan and his partner Dan Madsen standing on a California racetrack as a crew of nearly 500 people (including 200 women in bikinis packing the grandstands) spent three days making the idea he'd sketched in his composition book come to life. For six hours, the supermodel, Victoria's Secret Adriana Lima, had to be filmed waving the starting flag. The fighter they'd chosen, MMA superstar Chuck Liddell, kicked the head of giant man (a head that would explode once CGI special effects were added). And to Bajan, the most badass insane thing of all was that Vince Neil and Motley Crue actually agreed to act as the rock band at the center of his dream, playing "Kickstart My Heart" while fireballs shot in the air around them.

Three months later, the commercial would score as the third-favorite of 56 Super Bowl commercials by U.S.A. Today's "ad meter." Bajan was stunned at how fast it happened, "how crazy it was that Dan and I scribbled this idea into our notebooks and then all of a sudden, like 500 people helped bring it to life."

Bajan was proud of himself — but his former classmates and teachers at the Creative Circus graduate advertising school may have been even prouder. Bajan is one of the handful of kids who graduate from the school every quarter who dream up, write, or direct Super Bowl commercials, the biggest and most obvious mark of success in the ad world. This year, the talk was Bajan and his Optima ad. Last year, it was Ryan McLaughlin, a Circus grad who was the senior art director for the Super Bowl's most popular (some would say already iconic) ad, "The Force," the Volkswagon commercial with the child in a Darth Vader costume.

"Every year, there are more and more stories like Ryan's and other graduates," says Andrea Rizk, the spokesperson for Creative Circus. "It's one of the most well-known schools in the world, producing some of the most successful people in one of the biggest industries in the world, advertising, and very few people in Atlanta know about it. It's this hidden gem."

Indeed, this week 50 students from Creative Circus are in New York City showing their portfolios to more than a dozen of the country's biggest advertising agencies at Creative Week, hoping to land a key creative position at any one of them. The chances are good they will, as Creative Circus places 97 percent of its students in paying jobs in their first year after graduation — an astounding rate that enables the school to charge more than $42,000 for its two-year degree. The school is, like most arts schools, often criticized for how much it costs to teach people the discipline and process of something as ephemeral as "creativity." And it's a school that likes to mix its practical teachings with an undercurrent of public relations that suggests "this is as much art as it is business." But it can easily deflect some of those criticisms since, unlike art schools such as SCAD, Creative Circus is up front about its naked commercialism: We can charge that much, they say, because we teach kids how to succeed in business, and we get results.

"This is where commerce and creativity come together," says Dave Haan, executive director of the Circus. "It's not an art school. It's an idea school. Why? Because ideas have monetary value. We help them construct a portfolio, and that's what a portfolio is: a collection of ideas."

The construction of that portfolio doesn't happen right away. In fact, many of the kids are overwhelmed when they walk in the door. The work is demanding and requires long hours. They must learn basic skills that advertising firms used to have time and money to teach them, but no longer do — fonts, colors, design principles, trends in the visual arts.

The first year is spent mostly acquiring and refining these skills. Those who don't show aptitude, or who prove less-than-fully committed to the workload, are weeded out, often by their peers. They figure their degree is only as good as the weakest graduate, so there is alternately a camaraderie and a ruthlessness that develops. It's the creative equivalent of law school.

The second year focuses on collaboration. Most agency work is collaborative, so students must learn to play nice. They compete with each other for awards and recognition within the school, but also are expected to critique and make their colleagues' work better.

What is the most important skill they learn, the one that helps them the most in the real world for which they're being prepared? Ultimately, says graduate Rob Cody, the most important lesson the Circus taught him: "Don't be a dickhead." And, since creative endeavors are always about improving on the original idea, let's use March 2012 graduate Kate Baynham's answer to the same question: "Don't be a dick."

In fact, Baynham's story is a good one. For starters, her middle name is, literally, "Danger," and that's always entertaining. Her tale gives credence to Haan's contention that, "really, anyone can do this if they work hard enough."

Baynham had just finished college with, in her words, "a totally useless liberal arts degree." She thought that meant it was time perhaps to teach, or maybe go to law school. But children make her nervous and many of her best friends are lawbreakers. Her friend, a student at the Circus, offered sage advice: "You're weird and have nothing better to do. Why don't you come to school here?"

Baynham took a tour and immediately felt at home. She was initially intimidated by the walls in the school's hallways and front office area. Not because they're often brightly colored — the circus theme frankly can get wearisome, and it does beg the question of how a top advertising school could come up with a brand that draws so many eye rolls and confused faces. But because the school is an explosion of creative output, every inch of its catacombs and maze-like hallways is covered in student-produced work, everything from print advertisements to sculpture to games. The tour, though, triggered something in her admittedly intense competitive nature. "I said, 'Suck it nerds, I'm gonna win at ad school!'"

The grueling hours make it hard to work outside the school, but she managed to pick up a few shifts at South City Kitchen to help pay the tuition. Still, she wasn't ready for the grind or the pressure. Her first week, she threw up three times from nerves. Then she switched from an art direction focus to copywriting, and found her niche. "There was a lot of doubt. I was worried that if I failed at this, I was totally useless. But then I won some awards and felt better about it."

Walk the halls at the Circus, and you pick up that vibe, the fear-joy duality. Students huddle everywhere, some catch naps, some are in corners drawing on their computers. But go into the classrooms and there is an energy and engagement that most workplaces would love to (and rarely can) duplicate.

Nowhere is this duality more prevalent than in the classes of Sylvia Gaffney. She teaches several design classes and is known as the most beloved and most terrifying instructor at the Circus. On one student's blog, it was said that, "Sylvia Gaffney is known for ... her ability to stare you down and, without saying a single word, cause you to doubt the very breath you're about to take." (This is true. I stopped into her class she was conducting on color, and while informing me that "tangerine" was the color of 2012, she somehow made me feel dumber than I usually do. Impressive.) There are extended Facebook conversations revolving around how not to cry in her class. There is a fake Twitter account under her name (@SylviaGaffney) that pronounces things such as, "You're boring me, I'm about to die" and "I don't think Ryan Gosling is that attractive." It also quotes her as saying the accurate sentiment, "First you will hate me. You will be up late nights, you will want to call me the b-word, but then you will love me." Which just shows, the "always be nice" rule applies for students more so than for teachers.

Other classes on my afternoon tour include a version of the new TV show "The Pitch," where student groups get in front of their classmates to see who can come up with the most effective campaign. (My favorite I saw on the walls: Ads for raw meat wrapped around feet to look like high-fashion boots, photographed standing on grills.) There is also a class where you conceive and build a board game — board, packaging, pieces, even the instructions.

Spend a few hours here, seeing how tomorrow's Mad Men and Women are born, and you start having a few inescapable thoughts. One is that you probably chose the wrong career path, because these people are as creative as any writer or artist you probably know, but, you know, they're gonna get paid. (Which Haan says throws the main criticism — that the school costs way too much — out the window. "My kids go to Wesleyan and Tulane, and they took my money, too," he says.)

Parallel to that is the thought of the other major criticism of such a program, that it's just naked commercialism. It's understandable, but also seems a naïve criticism. Most of the ideas covering the walls, all the commercials that these kids are directing or designing or writing, are often better-paced, funnier, and tell a story better than half the "respectable" creative endeavors out there. It makes me wonder, can what these Creative Circus kids do be called art?

"I kind of hate this question," says Ted Royer, executive creative director at white-hot ad agency Droga5 in New York. "It steers the conversation into a wanky place. I don't know if it's art. I have an old French poster on my wall. It used to be an ad, now it's art. But the person who made it probably bitched about his client. I've seen some work that really is beautiful, truly beautiful. Is it art? Fuck if I know."

Well, then, I'll have to get an acceptably section-ending answer from a Creative Circus grad. "The place I'm interning for calls what we do 'art for capitalism's sake,'" says Baynham. "I like that. There's a real craft to what we do, it's not just slapped together and called an idea. Yes, there are really bad ads out there, what I call Thomas Kinkade ads. ... But it's all art. Art for The Man."

Thank you, Kate Baynham. Creative Circus taught you well. Even if my question was dumb, thank you for not being a dick.

People who recruit for ad agencies say being nice is actually not the thing that gets most Circus graduates jobs, of course. It's because the graduates have what the best advertising agencies are looking for: distinctiveness, students whose work reflects a quality the firms don't already have in abundance. "A book or portfolio that shows real joy in its thinking," says Droga5's Royer. "Too many books contain work that they think a creative director wants to see, not work that feels truly unfettered and original. The best student books show me a person who loves to think this stuff up." People like recent graduate David Ma, who now works at Droga5, and who is best-known under the Circus tent for a "Grad Men" campaign to garner "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm as a graduation speaker (which received notice in the Washington Post, but which ultimately didn't work).

It's that quality that leads to daily calls from big companies, not just ad agencies. Apple has called. Coca-Cola has called. Many of the world's best corporations have sought out the Creative Circus, looking to offer internships to 250 or so kids enrolled at any one time. It makes sense. Even the biggest corporations are having trouble finding young, talented people to re-energize their companies, so these companies will call the three most respected ad schools in the country — Creative Circus, VCU Brandcenter in Virginia, and Miami Ad School in Florida — and offer those students a foot in the door. Win-win, right?

"We tell them our students have already had internships," says Kim Kurtz, director of career services and herself a former student. "Unless they're calling with a job, the answer is, 'No, thanks.' These kids are here to train so they can get hired. That's the bottom line."

The companies still call, though — about five such inquiries a day — because the Circus has proven its graduates can produce memorable, winning campaigns. (What defines a winning campaign? The client is happy, sales go up, or an advertisement goes viral.) Recruiters at corporations and ad agencies pay attention to the work Circus graduates do in magazines ads, branding campaigns, and, most obviously, in television commercials. A recent reel of TV greatest hits that were contributed to mightily by Creative Circus grads is impressive: The Budweiser "end of prohibition" ad; a PC guy versus Mac guy ad (the one where future PC "freezes"); a Dos Equis "most interesting man in the world ad ("... He bowls overhand ..."); ESPN commercials; the Bud Light "dude" ad; and my favorite, the "our jokes aren't like their jokes" ad from Intel.

But the clear frontrunner in terms of alumni achievement is one of the most iconic advertisements of this decade: last year's Volkswagen Super Bowl ad "The Force," described by noted Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever as "a child in a Darth Vader costume stomps around the house and tries to use the Force, to little avail, except when he remote-starts his father's Passat in the driveway." Ryan McLaughlin, a Circus grad, was the senior art director on the commercial and one of the three credited with the idea. Stuever's take on the ad, which got more than 30 million views online within a few weeks:

"All night long, viewers kept tweeting and otherwise remarking that this was their favorite ad. What? It has no bimbos, no tools, no misogyny, nobody being hurled through plate-glass windows! It's just a kid in a Darth Vader costume. But that's the beauty of it — some years, the best 'event' commercials just tell a brief and relatable story."

Stories that resonate. That's what the industry is pitching — try to find an agency that doesn't now say its strength is "storytelling" — and that's what the Circus is teaching, for what it considers a reasonable fee, given its record of success. The Circus, since its inception in 1995, has been a for-profit enterprise, one that promises to graduate in two years (eight quarters) a career-ready graduate for (currently) the before mentioned $42,000-plus for the entire degree.

The school's administrators say that they have to charge this much to attract instructors with real-world experience, to afford the tools necessary to train students in the digital age, and to replace the shrinking pool of federal loans they can use to offset tuition costs. As well, they point out that the steep cost only increases the pressure placed on them to properly train and place students. The government makes sure students are getting their money's worth, or the school loses accreditation. The parents writing the checks make sure their kids are getting placed, or there's hell to pay. The other students make sure everyone's classwork is remarkable, lest the school lose its reputation and makes its degree less prestigious. And the agencies that hire its graduates no longer have the resources to train their own, so they rely on schools such Creative Circus to churn out cogs that fit their machine.

Alumni form perhaps the most demanding group of overseers in the Creative Circus social network. They keep in contact with teachers and administrators, telling them the mistakes they're seeing in new employees, and how they'd better correct that in the next set of graduates.

After all, this is "for better and for worse," Haan says, "an extended family. Past grads keep in contact with current students through social media, through visits to the school, and sometimes just by letting them crash on their couch during recruiting visits to New York, L.A., anywhere in between."

"This is a grad school," says associate director Shannon Cobourn, "and at least half of what you learn in grad school is from your peers."

Those peers have few characteristics that bond them besides their profession and the time they spent at Creative Circus. Its students come from all walks, and they often are drawn to the school because it's a way to not only get a job in a creative endeavor, but also find themselves in the process. The Circus has taken in law students, PHDs, kids out of high school, kids out of the military, geologists, electricians, and Mormons. To get in they must show they have some sort of creative competency, but they don't have to show a portfolio because they're coming there to develop one. Some get in because of graphic design ability, some because they can draw or paint or sculpt. One person got in because he wrote a really great song about the woman who broke his heart.

"All we look for," Haan says, "is a lot of passion."

Which sounds like some thing Don Draper would say.

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