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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

Instructor Sylvia Gaffney (far right) is both feared and beloved.

Joeff Davis

Instructor Sylvia Gaffney (far right) is both feared and beloved.

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."

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