This Art Deco building in Miami Beach doesn't look like a laboratory for the future of business education. A pink neon sign that reads "Miami Ad School" buzzes all night long above the main entrance. The school's canine mascots, Fudge and Applesauce, make it a point to sniff distinguished guest speakers. And the school's founders, the husband-and-wife team of Ron and Pippa Seichrist, sometimes meet with students at a nearby sidewalk cafe, on South Beach's trendy Lincoln Road Mall.
But this ultramellow image is deceptive. The Miami Ad School, founded in 1993, is inventing a new way to teach students about the business of advertising. In the process, it is also creating a set of principles about teaching, learning, and changing that are relevant to almost any business.
Forget sitting through academic lectures. The Miami Ad School has created a microcosm of the industry in which its students want to work — complete with tight budgets and fussy clients. Forget term papers. Students "study" by developing concepts, writing copy, supervising photo shoots, and producing print ads. Forget teachers with impressive credentials but no real-world experience. Students work only with instructors who work in the ad industry.
"It's all about the work," explains Mario Girard, who worked as a coat-check attendant, a ski-lift operator, and a sculptor before enrolling in the school. "The focus here is on doing advertising." During his time at the school, Girard has designed merchandise for MTV and created an underground marketing campaign for Fresh Cuts, a music store piloted by Blockbuster Entertainment Group.
What brings students to the school? Some are searching for a career that gets them juiced up. Others want to make a career change within advertising — say, from being an account manager or a traffic coordinator to working on the creative side of the business. Tuition costs about $2,500 per quarter, and most students finish the program in two years. Graduation isn't about grades — it's about growth.
Take Cliff Courtney's class on advertising concepts. Like most classes, it's held in the evening so that working professionals can come to the school and teach. Courtney is the creative director of a Miami agency called Courtney Watson, which handles advertising for such organizations as the Florida Marlins and Motorola Latin America. His assignment to the 20 students in the class: Create self-promotional packages that might win them each a job interview at his agency.
Courtney holds up a FedEx envelope and asks its owner, Kirsten Hampton, to come forward. She had dropped it off at his agency the previous day. The envelope contains a letter to Courtney from an exec at a big agency, telling him about Hampton, who had refused a job offer from that agency. This executive desperately wanted to hire her, but she had her mind set on working at Courtney Watson. Then the executive confesses to being a fictitious character — and beseeches Courtney to give Hampton an interview.
Courtney says he read the letter three times before he realized that it had been written for his assignment. "This is a winner," he declares. "I want to meet this person."
Not all feedback is so upbeat. A guiding principle at the school is that students should not be shielded from criticism. Its literature asserts, "Our faculty tells it like it is; if your work is great, they'll tell you so; if your work sucks, they'll tell you why and how to fix it."
Consider Don Tortoriello's layout-and-design class. One student has created a gorgeous billboard for Tag Heuer. But it's all watch and no copy. "I've got to be an ogre," says Tortoriello, who made his name at McCann-Erickson before starting his own production company. "I'm driving down the road at 65 miles an hour. Am I going to see the logo? This is not doing the job of outdoor advertising."
This tough-minded approach is yielding some big results. Each quarter, the school mints up to 15 graduates (from a student body of 150), and the placement rate is nearly 100%. Alumni work at big-name agencies like TBWA Chiat/Day, Fallon McElligott, and Young & Rubicam.
"You come here to get your book together," explains Ron Seichrist. "In advertising, a diploma won't cut it. You have to demonstrate that you know how to approach problems strategically." Pippa Seichrist agrees: "The Ad School is like a teaching hospital. We expose our students to the best doctors. Then we give them a scalpel."
Scott Kirsner firstname.lastname@example.org , who writes on business and technology from Boston's North End, grew up in Miami. You can learn more about the Miami Ad School on the Web (www.adschool.edu).
Sidebar: My Day in Ad School
The day I join Helayne Spivak's copywriting workshop, none of her 30 students even blinks when she hands out an impromptu assignment: Write a print ad in 30 minutes. Nor is anyone intimidated about presenting a pitch to Spivak, who, before retiring recently from J. Walter Thompson, was the top female creative director in the ad business.
We have to choose from one of three headlines: "What's Victoria's Secret?" is self-explanatory. "What You Can Learn About Advertising at the Hibiscus Lodge" is meant to promote the Miami Ad School (which is housed in a building known as the Hibiscus Lodge). The third is an ad for Wee-Wee Pads, a product that lets dogs take care of their business indoors. The headline: "Who Wants to Walk a Dog Anyway?"
Students fan out into classrooms or onto the tangerine-colored couches in the school's lobby. I flip open my notebook: "It's February in Minneapolis. Twenty below, two feet of new snow. The mailman has just sped off when Champ starts his routine — scratching the paint off the front door. Empower Champ to answer nature's call on his own." Then I hit on the product's benefits: It's sanitary, it's disposable, and training pets to use it is easy. "Who says you have to walk a dog anyway?" I ask. "Man's best friend shouldn't be a beast of burden."
After reading the ad, I turn to Spivak. She pays me a compliment: "It's not too ad-y, which is nice." Then comes the criticism: My scene setting dragged on, and I could have given Wee-Wee Pads a better tag line. Her idea: "It absorbs what you don't want to."
Elegant. Obvious. I'll stick to journalism.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb/March 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.