12: The 1st Quarter

I am Lu Chekowsky, one of 12 students at W+K 12, the advertising school founded last April at Wieden + Kennedy. W+K 12 was supposed to have 13 students. Jelly Helm, 12’s creative director thought it would be funny and interesting if a program called 12 were to have 13 students. It was his attempt at demonstrating how some things, when they appear skewed and wrong, are actually perfect. His perfect plan of imperfection was blown out of the water when the 13th student bailed. Exactly. Lesson No. 1: Don’t be attached to outcomes.

I heard about 12 for the first time on the back page of The Onion. I was waiting for a PATH train late one night and killing time. I was living in Jersey City, doing plays and comedy at night and picking up random projects and freelance gigs to pay the bills. Never once had it occurred to me to go to advertising school. This little classified ad—”Talented/ Directionless With $/Time to Spare?”—spoke to me in a way that nothing else had in ages. I was talented, sure. And I was as directionless as they come: 30 and unemployed with a résumé of never-quite-right jobs a mile long.

The minute I got home, I went online and found a mysterious little Web site buried within the pages of WK.com. There was a cryptic questionnaire. One question said: “Are you willing to dedicate 13 months of your life to an interesting experiment?” The crazy thing was, I was. And so I applied. And I was accepted. I moved to Portland, Ore., five weeks later. I broke up with a very nice man who treated me really well. I put my belongings in storage. I traveled with three pets on a cramped plane in a middle seat. I took a big risk and now here I am, knee deep in the experiment of W+K 12.

I was flattered when I was asked to write a diary-ish column for Adweek about the whole experience. A couple of students said things like, “Please, put my name in. I want people to know who I am. I want my mom to be proud of me.” They were joking and serious at the same time. Some were jealous that I got the chance to write the column. Some said that clearly to me, and others just acted that way. I respected the ones who told me so.

I didn’t have much time to think about it. Things were always very, very busy. Students in W+K 12 say to each other, “You going into work today?” Or, “See you at work tomorrow,” because 12 feels a lot like a job and not very much at all like a school. 12 is a teaching hospital, the kind where medical students learn on real-life patients who can just up and die if you make a mistake and do something wrong. Sometimes the pressure feels just that much.

Most of my time at 12 has been spent on National Voice, a coalition of progressive organizations that has hired 12 to create a get-out-the-vote campaign. Our “November 2” campaign is all about the growing movement of people who are motivated and confident and optimistic about that day. It has a heavy celebrity component that caters perfectly to my deep-seeded pop-culture obsession. Arianna Huffington and I have become friendly. Michael Stipe loves us.

A few weeks ago, some people from 12 left to go shoot a television spot for the campaign. They got to travel for two weeks and 4,700 miles across America on the tour bus that N Sync used. They lived like rock stars, and some of us stayed behind. I was one of those people. It was my job to answer e-mails from the client and track packages and send packages and answer the phone and sometimes send more packages. And I was supposed to be writing this column.

I knew this column was supposed to make W+K 12 look fascinating and Jelly Helm look like a good teacher and Dan Wieden pleased that he agreed to let Jelly do the school and Dave Luhr (chief operating officer) see that there would be a return on his investment and Liz Hartge (public relations director) feel proud to send this to Ellie Parpis (my editor at Adweek) and my dad see that I was doing well in Portland and my colleagues in 12 feel that I didn’t steal the spotlight too much and my old boyfriend feel like I did something that would merit leaving him behind. I paralyzed myself and was barely able to write a sentence.

I sent the first draft to Jelly on the bus tour. He said, “Nice structure but too filled with philosophy. You aren’t anywhere in this piece. Put yourself in it.” But then 11 other people will not be in the piece and fuck, I just have to get over that, I know.

So I write (I think) in a more honest style, like my application. And everyone kept asking to see it and I said sure. But I didn’t share it at all. 12 is supposed to be about collaboration, but I’m scared shitless that someone will think it’s self-indulgent and trying too hard and that they aren’t mentioned and it doesn’t represent us well. Forty-eight hours passed before Jelly called to tell me his reaction. He was busy and preoccupied. He said, “You wrote about honesty here. So can you take some honesty?”

I said yes. I was lying.

He told me it was exactly what I feared it was: all over the place and not sincere and confusing and worst of all: trying too hard. I went home for the afternoon, read Entertainment Weekly, hugged my dog and cried for two hours. I can barely handle criticism, which is why I work for myself, but it’s also why I am here—to challenge myself to break that cycle.

I made Jelly’s changes and sent it off to Adweek but knew that neither one of us was exactly happy. When he got back, Jelly and I sat down and looked at the column. He said, “Let’s not talk about what this is. Instead, write down what happened to you when you tried to write this. That’s the story.”

So here we are. Miles from the intended, original outcome. Two days after deadline. Still, this is the first version that I actually believe in.

This column might not make 12 look sexy or mysterious or fascinating, but maybe it will clarify some of what it really is: messy and hard and sometimes tragic. W+K 12 is an experiment that is part school, part agency and part painful, miserable, constructive process. It’s actually a lot like life, magnified. It’s a place where honesty isn’t easy, where I can create like crazy, have it all killed and start all over again and have faith that I’ll be better for it. Even though it hurts like hell.

Chekowsky will write in with her next installment about life at 12 in the fall.

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