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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.
Trivialize her popularity.
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