The Year of Learning Dangerously

“12,” an advertising school launched by an ad agency, is an “incredibly messy” education in solving real-world problems.

Before The Donald claimed it, the term “apprenticeship” referred to the quaint notion of learning a trade from a master. Of course, Trump’s The Apprentice has little to do with learning — and everything to do with the master. So it is for too much of the business world, where exuding mastery interferes with the work of discovery.


The spirit of discovery is precisely what inspired an experiment in learning at the Portland, Oregon, headquarters of advertising maverick Wieden+Kennedy. In April, W+K launched a pioneering advertising school called “12.” Instead of a formal curriculum or full-fledged faculty, 12 offers 12 students 13 months of real work for very real clients.

The school’s design reflects the free spirit and restless mind of its cofounder, Jelly Helm, 39. Helm left his career as a star creative director at W+K in 1997 to help build Virginia Commonwealth University’s graduate program, Adcenter. He returned to the agency last year not to make more ads but to shake up the craft.

He placed a classified ad: “Talented/ Directionless, With $/Time to Spare?” — an open call to misfits, oddballs, and wayward youth. It drew more than 3,000 people to a cryptic Web site. The “application” instructions? “Tell us your story. . . . Charm us. Surprise us. Seduce us.”

Hundreds applied. The chosen 12 — among them a former stand-up comedian, a sculptor, and an ex-welder — reported to work with four paying clients awaiting action. Helm’s brief for his diverse group of advertising neophytes: Collaborate in a way that dodges the industry’s typical “lone genius” approach to creative work, and remix the standard writer/art director/ account executive formula. He provided little structure but a lot of support, pairing each student with an advertising veteran. The one regular class is a monthly improv session intended to focus the students on openness, teamwork, and experimentation.

Life in the 12 quad of W+K’s light-filled home office is intense and chaotic. “We came in here with this ideal of collaborative and experimental work, and then we were hit with the reality of paying clients we have to please, real advertising problems we have to solve, and deadlines we have to meet,” says Lu Chekowsky, 30. “It’s incredibly messy, but that’s the education.”

Helm is getting an education of his own in the process — from “horrible failures” in interactions with students to surprise at their “consistently counterintuitive” approaches. That the students have as much to teach the agency’s veterans as they have to learn doesn’t surprise Dan Wieden, W+K’s president. That’s exactly the point. “Creativity is basically subversive,” says Wieden. “So you have to have subversive elements in the organization to keep yourself awake and evolving.”