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Atlanta's school for Mad Men

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



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Print ads from Creative Circus students line the walls and are rotated often. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Print ads from Creative Circus students line the walls and are rotated often.

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."

Associate Director Shannon Cobourn poses in front of the main meeting room at the school’s center. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Associate Director Shannon Cobourn poses in front of the main meeting room at the school’s center.

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.

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