Still, the real losers so far are probably students such as Shey Book, who is no longer quite as chez book as she once was. After sinking thousands of dollars into a Portfolio Center education she finds herself in an odd self-imposed exile from the school. "I couldn't see myself going back after everything that's happened," says Book. She's taking only one class at PC's newly founded renegade competition, the
Creative Circus, whose limited curriculum at this point is a problem. "So we're just going to keep teaching ourselves, for now," says Book, referring to the student-run support group that's been formed to help her fellow ex-PCers deal with their current independent study status.
"The students are the ones I feel sorry for," says Ron Seichrist, a co-founder of PC who now runs the Miami Ad School. "They've been caught in the middle, and that shouldn't have happened."
Just what did happen? Insiders say trouble had been brewing for some time at the 17-year-old Portfolio Center, where students and teachers had taken to griping about what they perceived to be the miserly tactics of school owner Gemma Gatti. But the crisis arrived in March, when several of the school's top teachers, led by education director Norm Grey, left to form the Circus, a spinoff ad school also based in Atlanta. That might have been a relatively innocuous event, except that when Creative Circus held its first informal meeting in a local restaurant an estimated 150 students-or roughly half the total stu-
dent body of PC-showed up, wanting to know more. As students buzzed about the new school, it appeared, briefly, that PC might soon become an ailing sideshow.
But before the Circus could open, government regulators-initially spurred on by a complaint from PC-temporarily shut down the new school on grounds that it hadn't followed proper licensing procedures. While the Circus folks seem to feel that Portfolio Center is trying to make things difficult for them, supporters of PC argued that the Circus got what it deserved for not following rules and trying to swipe students from a respectable existing school. Caught in the middle, meanwhile, were the students: Most decided to stay with PC, but about 50 refused to go back and began holding their own ad hoc discussion groups and classes in local coffee shops.
By mid-May Creative Circus had finally secured its educational license to teach; it began registering students and is already conducting classes. But its future is still up in the air. The school has not yet been approved to teach critical subjects like copywriting, nor has it been accredited, which means it may not be able to provide much-needed financial aid for students.
At the same time, PC, too, may have suffered some damage in the brawl. With the departure of Grey, along with former PC department heads Rob Lawton, Mike Jones-Kelley and Evelyn Barnes (Carol Vick, a former placement director for PC, is also a co-founder of Creative Circus), the school lost a respected group of educators who had close ties not only to students but to teachers; according to Grey, at least 10 PC teachers have already indicated that they're moving over to the Circus. Grey also has a strong relationship with big-name creative directors who have been boosters of PC, including Goldsmith/Jeffrey's Gary Goldsmith and Nick Cohen of Mad Dogs & Englishmen. "The people who left Portfolio Center were key people," says Goldsmith, who has occasionally taught at PC. "They're the ones who were most in touch with students and who helped build the school's reputation. So you have to wonder what will happen without them."
How did the well-regarded PC get into such a mess? And why should anyone, aside from students and perhaps their bill-paying parents, really care about a skirmish between a couple of tiny schools in Atlanta? Beginning with the latter question, the fate of Portfolio Center could have a significant impact on the creative side of the ad business in years ahead. Founded in 1978 by Seichrist, Gatti, and a small band of renegade teachers who left the Art Institute of Atlanta, the school pioneered the practice of having students just do ads-as opposed to subjecting them to endless theory and lectures.
Goldsmith says that PC, along with Art Center in Pasadena, "is very important to our business because it is doing something the universities don't do with regard to getting young people up to a certain level of sophistication." Mad Dogs' Cohen, who has hired a number of creatives from PC, seconds that opinion: "By preparing kids in a working environment, Portfolio Center turns out people who can hit the ground running once they're hired by an agency," he says.
For pure creativity, the school's reputation is unsurpassed, says headhunter Anne Bingman of Jerry Fields & Associates. "In general, the most polished portfolios I see come out of Portfolio Center," she says. Bingman also gives the school high marks for its placement rate (which, according to Gatti, runs higher than 95 percent). But in addition to helping students buff their books and subsequently land jobs, the school also "managed to encourage you to think differently, to be original," says Wieden & Kennedy's Charlotte Moore-who, along with Jelly Helm, is one of several of that agency's stars to have come from PC. "Advertising students usually tend to focus on what others have done," says Moore, "but Ron [Seichrist] encouraged students at Portfolio Center to develop their own voice and style."
But as influential as PC has been over the past decade, signs of decline have appeared of late, says headhunter Bingman. "I think there's been a little weakening in conceptual thinking at the school, with more books looking alike," she says. "The school may, to some extent, be a victim of its own success." Crispin & Porter's Peter Blikslager, who attended PC a few years back and now teaches at the Miami Ad School, agrees. "I think in recent years, the school has been letting in too many people who didn't belong there," he says. Seichrist says that he designed the school to serve about 200 students, and it has now surpassed that number by 50 percent.
And within the school a restlessness has been mounting, apparently in response to various policies that Gatti has enacted as president. Students, many of whom are hard-up for cash, were particularly bothered by a $60 per quarter fee the school charged to use computers (making matters worse, the fee had to be paid in cash). Student tuition had steadily climbed to $2,750 per quarter, while, according to several sources, teachers' salaries remained frozen at the same level for years. And teachers also suffered the minor indignity each day of punching a time clock.
While none of the school's individual policies was particularly egregious, collectively they added up to a perceived slap in the face of students and teachers, and they fed a perception within the school that Gatti had become too concerned with turning a profit. Says Mike Turner, an ex-PC prof who joined the Circus, "It seemed as if Gemma forgot that the original idea was to make a great school, and she got more and more into upping her income."
Gatti responds that "perception is perception, and it often comes from lack of facts." She won't specify how much the school makes in profit, saying only: "I make good money, and, yes, the school is profitable." But she adds that the school re-invests much of the $3 million-plus that it takes in annually from students to pay for major renovations of the facility and acquisitions of quality computer equipment. And she insists that tuition and teacher salaries are comparable to other schools. "Students always think tuition is too high," she says.
Gatti's image problem at the school may date back to 1989, when she split from husband Seichrist. While a handful of people, including Gatti, helped launch the school, Seichrist was considered by some to be the visionary behind Portfolio Center. "He was the leader and the person who really made Atlanta an advertising education center," says Rob Brinson, one of the original partners. Seichrist was also close to students at the school, says Charlotte Moore and others. Gatti, by contrast, seemed to have a lower profile with students, and with some teachers ("In eight years teaching there, I've never spoken to her," says Turner). Gatti explains that even though she had a teaching background in fine arts and photography, "as the school grew I began to do more of the administration part."
After her divorce from Seichrist, Gatti was suddenly in charge; she gained majority control of the school in part because her father had been an investor and also because another partner at the school threw in his votes with her. Outvoted, Seichrist decided to sell his share of the school to Gatti and headed for Florida to begin anew. "He just cleared out his desk one day," says Grey. Today, five years later, students at PC still talk about Seichrist and the split; some feel that Gatti simply "won the school in a divorce settlement," says John Mims, a student who left PC in the midst of the recent brouhaha. "I think that may be the core of the discontent, because it leads people to think that she never really cared about the school."
That perception may be unfair to Gatti, who is the only one of the original founders to stand by the school for all of its 17 years. Gatti insists that she has always cared about the school's reputation and its students. But her policies, combined with what some saw as aloofness on her part, particularly rankled students in the past year, according to Grey. He says that it was that rising tide of student discontent that led him to consider starting the Circus, which he did by acquiring the existing Southeastern Center for the Arts (SCA), a small school known primarily for photography. "It just seemed like Portfolio Center was starting to become a reform school," Grey says. His partner Mike Jones-Kelley adds: "We wanted a school centered around the student, not motivated by profit."
Once Grey, a longtime veteran of the ad business who worked at Bozell, BBDO, McCann-Erickson and elsewhere, announced that he was leaving Portfolio Center, he "immediately started getting phone calls at home from students who wanted to know what was going on," he says. To answer those questions, Grey and his partners decided to hold a meeting at a local restaurant. And that was when the big crowd of PC students gathered and the trouble began. "We were stunned that so many students showed up," says Jones-Kelley.
It's unclear how many of those students would have actually defected to the Circus, though Grey's plan-which called for lower tuition, higher teacher salaries, and no computer fees-prompted a number of PC teachers to immediately join his faculty. But within weeks it was clear that Grey had made some procedural mistakes. He had allowed the educational license of SCA to expire, and had failed to apply for one of his own within the necessary time period, which led to delays in opening. And so students were left to fend for themselves. Grey concedes he may have tried to rush the opening: "I admit I had no idea what I was getting into by opening a school," he says.
One of Grey's toughest critics is, surprisingly, Seichrist, who has been watching events unfold at his old school from the vantage point of his new school in Miami. "There's nothing wrong with starting a new school, but you have to do it in an ethical way," he says. "You have to follow all the steps and regulations, which they didn't do. And you should not plunder an existing school."
For his part, Grey insists he did no direct recruiting of PC students, and the student defectors back him up. "Students found out about the new school from talking to each other," says Mims. Shey Book adds: "They didn't have to solicit-there were so many students who were anxious to have another option."
Grey is confident his school will be on track with a full curriculum by next fall (though he must first submit new course proposals to a local commission for approval, and he may also have to wait as long as two years for full accreditation of the school). He insists that if the Circus succeeds it needn't be at Portfolio Center's expense. "Right now, we're arguing over 300 students," he says, "but if Atlanta had two nationally known schools, this area could really become a magnet for advertising students from around the country."
Gatti now says that she believes "competition's good for everyone." Already she seems to have softened school policies in response to the challenge; the computer fees have been abolished for now, and teachers' salaries have been raised.
Meanwhile, Goldsmith and Cohen are betting on the Circus act. "At this point, if I were sending someone to get their portfolio done I'd send them to the new