Cal McAllister is CEO and executive creative director of Seattle-based advertising agency Wexley School for Girls, which he co-founded in 2003. He graduated from Ohio State University and became a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, but realized that journalism was not the ideal field for making things up, so he returned to school, this time at The Creative Circus in Atlanta, Georgia. McAllister’s work has been recognized by Cannes, the One Show, Communication Arts and Clios, among others. Clients such as the Seattle Sounders, Ford Motor Company, Darigold, Copper Mountain Ski Resort, Microsoft, the University of Washington, ESPN, Nike and T-Mobile come to Wexley for the agency’s take on experiential advertising and digital marketing. McAllister was named one of the Northwest’s Top 40 Under 40 by the Puget Sound Business Journal, and was named by Seattle magazine as one of the city’s 25 most influential people.
Showing Up and Staying There
What's the strangest request you've received from a client?
The strangest request, and certainly the most exciting, was when the United States Army asked us to help with guerrilla marketing during the 2009 presidential elections in Afghanistan. The Taliban are exceptionally talented when it comes to vandalism, faking U.S. communications and scaring the shit out of people. So we helped the Army create projections and audio blasts, things the Taliban couldn’t tamper with, as well as helping them communicate with the Taliban on social media. I am both a chicken and a wimp, so the idea of me bravely representing our great nation when things got serious wasn’t ever on anyone’s radar. But getting a letter of appreciation from a commanding officer of the Stryker Brigade Combat Team felt like getting a medal.
What trends in advertising are you most interested in and why?
It’s interesting how clients handle quantifiable results. There have been giant steps forward in analytics and digital measurement, which makes it easier to find a justifiable return on investment—but it doesn’t mean the numbers are actually right. This is statistics. Anyone can make any numbers say anything, really, because there is no proven scale of success until you look at sales. But I have people who want us to pitch and promise numbers. I can promise a million YouTube views; anyone can, because you can go buy them. Does that mean they are valuable to the brand, or that the ad is a good investment? Get serious. This new era of measurability has a lot of folks screaming, “Finally!” without truly looking at what they’ve found.
Where did the name Wexley School for Girls come from?
That’s what those guys over at 72andSunny were going to call themselves, but I hacked into their emails and I stole it.
What is one challenge currently facing advertising agencies that they need to address in order to remain relevant?
What are the advantages and possibilities of experiential marketing?
Experiential marketing offers long periods of engagement. We get to communicate with people, exchange ideas and truly make our audience a part of the process. Consumers have a two-way conversation now, and we can make that scale by working with digital elements.
How is the rise of technology helping or hurting the brands you work for?
Technology is double-edged for sure. It allows brands to communicate a voice and create an experience like never before, in ways the customer might never expect. The opportunities are truly limitless—but so is exposure to brands. It’s hard to keep secrets. You really can’t pull one over on an informed public, so there is no point in trying. Especially on social media, consumers are asking questions and they expect them to be answered, particularly when they don’t like the way a brand is doing business.
What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising?
If no one ever took the time to create an industry in which one just sits around and gets paid to make stuff up, travel the world, create reasonable influence over people they’ll never meet, eat at the tables of the world’s best chefs and then bitch about it all…? Ugh, I don’t even want to think about what that looks like.
What's the best advice you’ve been given in your career?
When I was finishing up at Creative Circus, I was whining to my advisor, Mike Jones Kelly, about writer’s block. After listening to a solid ten minutes of my bitching about creative stagnation, he told me the most valuable thing I’ve heard: “Cal, you’re not good enough for writer’s block.” Writer’s block is giving up, and it’s an excuse. Take a break, but don’t quit.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession?
It pays to be tireless. Coming up with new ideas when good ones die for obscure reasons; working longer than seems necessary on a production because the results just aren’t there yet; putting in an extra phone call when e-mail is easier. Half of success in this business is just showing up. The other half is staying there.