Is Atlanta the next great creative destination?

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Public art in Old Fourth Ward, Atlanta
Public art in Old Fourth Ward, Atlanta

The city has always been good at growing talent, now its creative culture is keeping it, writes Iris' executive creative director.

Most in the advertising industry are familiar with the prestigious Creative Circus as the starting point for thousands of creative careers. The long-standing stalwart has been nurturing talent since 1995. With a 99% placement rate in the best agencies worldwide, suffice to say, Atlanta knows how to grow 'em. But until recently, the city couldn't hold on to the top young creatives it nurtured.

Becca Zavorski, a recent Creative Circus grad, suggested, "I think young creatives get it in their heads that to make great stuff they have to be in a certain city, when in reality, great creative work can come from anywhere."

Zavorski's not alone in her realization, as many ad school graduates are increasingly staying or finding their way back down south.

So, what gives? What's driving young creatives to not only earn their stripes here, but also stay to show them off?

Here are five reasons why Atlanta-trained creatives are heading back below the Mason Dixon, and why graduates are sticking around.  

Production values are up. Over the last decade, Georgia has become home to the third largest film industry in the world. With mega-studios like Pinewood taking root in the state, as well as diverse bank of camera-ready locations, it's no surprise that in this month alone there are 37 live productions including "The Walking Dead," "Stranger Things" and "Avengers: Infinity War" (the 4th Marvel film to be shot in the state). What does this mean for young creatives? Well, beyond upping their chances of running into a shirtless Chris Hemsworth, more productions mean more job opportunities in film and TV and greater access to Hollywood-level professionals to help bring their ideas to life.

Ingenuity focused on simpler living. In 1999, a Georgia Tech grad saw Atlanta's unused rail corridors as an opportunity to create a citywide network of trails. The Atlanta BeltLine, as it is now called, has sparked huge growth and is the nation's largest urban regeneration program. Upon completion, it will connect the city to more walkable neighborhoods, giving residents access to more parks, affordable housing, and in the future, more public transportation. These efforts give Atlanta's young, and ostensibly lower paid, professionals the opportunity to live in nicer housing that's closer to their offices, and amid the restaurants, bars and green spaces where they spend their free time.

Blue chip clients call it home. With lower real estate prices, Atlanta is home to a growing number of sprawling campuses for blue chip HQs. Coca-Cola, Porsche Cars North America, The Home Depot, InterContinental Hotels Group, AT&T and most recently, Mercedes-Benz, all call Atlanta home. This obviously opens more opportunities for creatives to work within internal marketing departments, but for those who want to live the agency life, working in a town with many HQs means travel budgets no longer hold young creatives back from getting client face-time.

The chance to build client relationships early also means young creatives learn to see their clients as partners earlier in their tenure. And since it's a combination of creative vision and business acumen that paves the path toward higher-paid positions, this proximity means Atlanta creatives may be better positioned to rise through the ranks faster.  

The chance to shape a city. When a city is on the rise, the world's change agents know they'll have a greater opportunity to shape the final product. Blooming startup communities mean makers have a stronger chance to bring big their ideas to the masses. And a drool-inducing foodie scene has proven Atlanta is hungry for culturally-diverse dishes, giving Michelin star chefs room to stretch their menus.

As the creative class floods into the city, many are inspired by the prospect of making bigger waves and influencing culture. At the risk of sounding "millennial," burgeoning ad creatives have realized that, in Atlanta, they can be instrumental in making the machine, rather than just being a cog inside it. This new blood is finding their place at young, hungry and exciting agencies, with cultures that embrace the city, and have become part of its story as they help it grow.

The next great creative destination. No longer a "giant, soulless parking lot," home only to a roster of big dinosaur agencies, or satellite offices churning out web banners for their New York City motherships, Atlanta is poised to position itself as the country's next great creative destination.

The proof can be found where the talent lands. The "why" is a combination of many things, but what it adds up to is this: Atlanta is no longer trying to be a place it's not and instead has chosen to embrace what it is. It's not NY, but it's got an entrepreneurial spirit and the elbow room to put it to use. It's not LA, but it's building a strong creative culture with something to say and the means to say it.

It is Atlanta: a big city with big opportunities that believes you can be player without trading in your southern charms.

Sure, it's still got some work to do, but this town is pretty good at reinventing itself; it's no stranger to hard work. And through it, a city that has historically exported the talent it grows to its East and West Coast brethren has a better argument than ever to reap what it has sewn.  

Simon Candy is executive creative director of Iris Atlanta.

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