Why Does The World Need Another Advertising School? Denver Ad School’s Co-Founders Explain

By Patrick Coffee 

Does the ad industry need another higher education institution to teach aspiring creative directors how to hone their craft?

Jesse Alkire and Heather Vanisko, two people who have collectively spent a couple of decades in the industry, running the Chicago Portfolio School and creating a few nice-looking fake hats in the process, think the answer is yes.

So last month they officially launched the Denver Ad School, a new old school joint established to provide “an alternative for advertising students at half of the cost and for half the time of the other top programs.”


But why? We spoke to the two to learn more about their motivations and goals—and why you should care.

AgencySpy: So why start a new ad school at this moment in time?
Jesse Alkire: I think there’s a need for it. There are a la carte programs, and those are OK, but in terms of truly dedicated programs to get you a book and a job, there are only three in country: Miami Ad School, The Creative Circus and Chicago Portfolio School.

Take a step back: There are not a lot of choices. And money is a huge thing. The biggest and best are two years and over $40,000, which is a lot of money for almost everyone. If you’re rich I guess its no big deal, but especially for kids coming out of college who just spent four years and god knows how much money? And then, in order to get into the business, a majority of creatives go to one of these programs. We were inspired by the Chicago model, which is one year and cheaper submissions, because we think there’s a big need.

And how do you think this speaks to bigger issues in the industry?
I always thought advertising is very exclusive in the sense that there’s lots of rich old white men that kinda run the business. You think, how can I start to fix that? I think a way I could help is with an ad school: make it more accessible, affordable, and interesting, and attract different types of people. You can start to flood the market with different types of talent, points of view, etc. That’s going to lead to better creative and better business down the line with less of the bullshit we’ve been seeing over the last decade or so.

And why Denver?
I grew up here, but I’ve been gone for 15 years working in Chicago. A little part of it is, I’d love to come back and help the market here. There’s a need here. There are lots of great agencies, especially in Boulder, but they’re all small: 5, 10, 15 people, lots of whom came from those bigger markets. They got sick of it, and came here because it’s great place to live. And there’s some freedom; it’s like a wild west thing where you do what you want, experiment, and just go for it. One of our partners, CPB, is hands down one of best agencies in the country.

People are excited. Heather and myself are connected all over country, and we will get kids jobs everywhere, but years down the road I would love to say, “Denver’s on the level.”

So how does it work? And is this your full-time job now?
I took off for six months to launch it, but I’m too young to retire. As the director, Heather is really running it. I’m helping with creative direction and teaching once or twice a week. We are going to keep it small, and we’re hoping for about 15 students to start for smaller class size.

Heather Vanisko: A huge part of our deal here is helping our students get jobs. We spend about 2 months when they’re finishing to really help with that process: Getting stuff online, getting in touch with recruiters, telling them what to say, etc. The door never really closes. We’re there for them, and we’re happy to help until they find the job of their dreams. Placement has been very high doing this in the past. [Ed note: Vanisko ran the Chicago Portfolio School for 7 years.]

We had to get approved by the Colorado Department of Education; it was a long process.

Who teaches the classes?
Jesse: It’s run the same way we would run a team at work: a CD comes in, we give them a brand, and they work with students to develop strategy and insights and develop executions. It’s  almost like you come in and do a year of on-the-job training. We’re even going to do some classes on brands the CDs actually work on. Everything is designed to give them real world experience and make them ready to hit the ground running. We are doing online classes as well, which opens us up to agencies all over the country. We’ve been talking to places in NY, LA, Chicago.

Heather: Every teacher is an actual CD or ECD; they’re all working professionals from agencies in the area. And we’re super excited because one day a week they head to Boulder to have classes on-site at CPB.

How will you know when you’ve been successful?
Jesse: If, in 20-30 years, we are on the level of Creative Circus or Miami Ad School, that’s fine I guess. But this is very much a passion thing for me, so I don’t care about how big we get. I care more about how many we can help. One year from now, our first class will be graduating and getting to work. The easiest way to measure success is to answer whether we are we placing them at agencies and in-house teams.

I am a jaded person in most aspects of my life, but this is pretty cool.