It's like the Beatles starting a music school." That's how Jelly Helm, ex-Wieden + Kennedy creative director, ex-VCU Adcenter instructor and vocal ad critic, describes Wieden's new venture: a 13-month ad-school program called 12 that will be housed at the agency's Portland, Ore., office and cater to a dozen students at a time, beginning in April.
The Beatles analogy is apt: Other agencies run in-house tutorial programs—Ogilvy & Mather has Young Guns, for example—but few shops have the creative cachet Wieden has earned through its work for Nike, among other clients. And 12's students will get their hands dirty, doing actual work for actual clients, along with personal projects.
"We're giving kids keys to an advertising agency," says Helm, who will be the top adviser and creative director to the students. "They'll do everything from answering phones to shipping materials, creative, strategic development and media work. Any work they can't do [due to lack of experience], they'll get support."
Two new, undisclosed clients have committed to the program, and the school plans to add one more, says Helm. Like most ad schools, 12 will issue certificates to graduates, and Helm says he doesn't consider it an in-house training program for Wieden. "It would be great if all 12 left and started their own agency, and it would be cool if Wieden + Kennedy absorbed them into the system," he says. "It really depends on what the 12 people decide."
Tuition is $13,000. Wieden has received 1,300 applications for the inaugural class so far, and Helm expects that to double by the Jan. 1 deadline. The top 24 applicants will visit the agency Feb. 2. "It's difficult to sum up what we're looking for," Helm says. "Twelve special people who are open to the idea of a very top-level experimental education in advertising."
That is something Helm, 39, may be uniquely qualified to offer. He has split his career between teaching and practicing the craft. He started in the early '90s at The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., moved to Wieden in 1992, spent time as a creative director at Wieden Amsterdam and returned to Martin in 1997, largely in a mentoring role—he also became an associate professor at the VCU Adcenter in Richmond.
"It's a cliché that you never learn something until you start teaching it," Helm says. "I learned a lot about advertising in the years I was associated with the Adcenter."
He also learned plenty at each agency stop, working on clients such as Nike, Coke and Microsoft at Wieden ("Good vs. Evil," a 1996 Nike soccer spot out of Wieden Amsterdam, was a high point) and Timberland at Martin.
Helm moved back to Portland in 2001 so his newborn son could be closer to his grandparents. While teaching his Adcenter class remotely, he took the idea for 12 to agency CEO and chief creative officer Dan Wieden.
"I just thought there was probably something to be gained by getting a small group of really talented people in here who are slightly naive but very passionate and do some experimental stuff," Wieden says.
As far as having students running around, creative director Hal Curtis says: "It's frightening, in a good way. We're all excited about it."
12 is likely take to some cues from the Adcenter, which combines courses in ad history and media ethics with classes in three tracks: copywriting, art direction and strategy. "Dan Wieden has been on the Adcenter board from its inception, and Jelly was one of the first instructors there," says Rick Boyko, Adcenter managing director. "So I believe the philosophy of teaching will not be that dissimilar."
But Helm says there will be differences. "It's great that the VCU Adcenter is affiliated with [Virginia Commonwealth University], but that can also be encumbering, in the same way any nonindependent entity is restricted by its parent," he says. "What I've always loved about Wieden is that it's stubbornly independent."
"Sometimes the problem with schools is they are so theoretical," says Wieden. "You don't have to put that together with the reality of the marketplace." Of Helm, Wieden says, "There are very few people who combine idealism and hard-core practicality better."
12 also will impart Helm's philosophy on advertising's role in society. In 1999, he was named to the advisory board for the United Nations Environment Programme's Initiative of Sustainable Consumption, designed to encourage business, media and marketing to help shape sustainable consumption patterns globally. "One of the values we list for the school is a belief in 'systems thinking,' which is a replacement for 'sustainability,' which has become a tired word," Helm says. "It's definitely a belief that a brand doesn't exist in a vacuum, that how a company behaves has an effect on how people feel about them."
Helm says Wieden is the perfect place for 12. "The agency has been, in some ways, a 22-year experiment," he says. As part of that philosophy, the students will take workshops in storytelling and improv acting, and the program may expand to include two classes of 12 or be held each year at a different Wieden office, such as Amsterdam or Tokyo. "We pride ourself on being experimental," Wieden says. "Sometimes old dogs can learn new tricks."