Bart Cleveland has a lot of energy and much to teach today’s up and coming advertising professionals.
An art director by trade, he has been a partner in three successful ad agencies—Cleveland Clark, and Sawyer Riley Compton, both in Atlanta; and McKee Wallwork Cleveland in Albuquerque. Today, Cleveland is the founder of Job Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Austin, Texas, which is an innovative and customized training program for aspiring advertising professionals.
Cleveland met me at Stonehouse Coffee on South Lamar to discuss his career and what he’s doing now. “The common thread throughout my career has always been that I like to help and mentor others,” he says.
The Impetus: A Burning Desire To Do Great Work
“I jokingly tell a story about one of the first places I worked,” says Cleveland. “I was appealing to the owner about doing better work, and he said, ‘Bart, my philosophy of advertising is the client signs the check on one side, and I sign it on the other.’ It wasn’t lost on my young mind that I was in the wrong place if I wanted to do great work. I held nothing against those people. It was just a different philosophy.”
After 12 years as an agency staffer, Cleveland took the entrepreneurial leap and hung out his first shingle with Chip Clark in Atlanta. “What I decided after a period of time was I’m going to have to become an owner and take the risk in order to do great work.”
I call advertising a religion with lots of denominations. We all believe we’re going to advertising heaven. But our way.
The Problem: People Don’t Know How To Think
JPL’s customers are typically one to two years into their advertising careers. Cleveland says his proteges often find that they hit a wall at this early juncture and can’t advance because they don’t have the portfolio they need, nor the skills to acquire it. “I am very discouraged at the preparatory level that kids are coming out of school with. Our business has dramatically changed in the last dozen years. It moves at faster speeds than ever, yet the academic model is behind the curve.”
Cleveland’s mentoring started early in his career. While working his first job in Florida, he became a guest lecturer at Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota. “Every Friday, I would teach design and advertising. I also started doing talks on campuses. Kids would come up to me and say, ‘We don’t have any way to do what you’re saying, to build a portfolio.'”
After Cleveland moved to Atlanta, he taught at both Portfolio Center and Creative Circus, which was co-founded by his mentor, Rob Lawton. He also brought his mentoring mindset to work with him.
I hired a lot of people right out of school. They didn’t know how to think, although they were very talented. I needed them to think and come up with great ideas at will, so I created processes for them to practice that. Techniques to help them think and create a prolific number of ideas, and then to discern which ideas are most innovative.
The Solution: Accelerated, Affordable Learning
Because graduates of four-year colleges have not been taught to think conceptually on campus, most of the people who enroll in JPL’s training programs need to rebuild their portfolio from the ground up.
“We start out with a career assessment,” says Cleveland. “I do ‘Me Research’ with them to learn about what their dreams are. I try to understand the person and what motivates them. Being motived is a key to being prolific and a key to being effective.”
Proteges leave the training program with 18-24 pieces that constitute an entry-level portfolio. Cleveland calls it, “accelerated learning,” and says he squeezes two years of education into a six-month block. “I grew up poor. The idea of going to six years of school and incuring all that expense, wouldn’t have been possible for me.”
Cleveland is a well-known ad man and he leverages his network to benefit his proteges. He asks people like David Baldwin and PJ Pereira to give a little bit of their time, and he receives countless volunteer hours from the staff at Austin agency McGarrah Jessee. Mark McGarrah and Bryan Jessee are his partners in JPL and the agency provides the infrastructure for the business.
JPL has helped to place its graduates at The Richards Group, FCB Chicago, Ogilvy NY, 72andsunny, Goodby Silverstein and many other creatively-driven agencies.