Your first question might be—does Wexley School for Girls get calls asking about tuition plans, curriculum and what color the uniforms are? Yes. No surprise. Does Wexley also get calls about what’s on the menu and if they deliver? Also, yes. Because advertising agency Wexley School for Girls, located on busy 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle, Washington, looks like a Chinese restaurant, complete with dead (plastic) chickens hanging in the large picture window spanning the front.
Peering inside, you’ll see worn red leather booths, Chinese Buddhas sitting patiently about and paper lanterns festooning the walls. Sure enough, on a February afternoon, as principal/creative director Cal McAllister stood on the sidewalk out front waiting for his founding partner, creative director Ian Cohen, a man passing by stopped and asked, “Are they any good?” Cal smiled as if to say, “Yes.” And then, because he’s not the kind of guy to mislead you, broke down and blurted out the truth.
McAllister and Cohen formed the agency in 2003, and service clients including Darigold, the Seattle Sounders, Microsoft, Rainier Beer, Oh Boy! Oberto, Copper Mountain and HomeStreet Bank. They call themselves a “fan factory,” aiming to engage consumers on such a level that they become brand fanatics, employing just about any method to do so.
As part of a launch for the Farmalicious campaign for Northwestern dairy brand Darigold, the agency erected a hulk of a refrigerator—sixteen feet high—in Portland, Oregon’s popular Pioneer Square. Its door hung open, revealing a homegrown rock band hawking cupcakes, cookies and other treats either made from or to go with the company’s farm-fresh wares. Refrigerator magnets spelled out incoming, live tweets. At the same time, colorful, tricked-out vintage tractors rolled through urban settings and farmland proclaiming the rallying cry.
Seth Godwin, Darigold’s senior product manager, says, “The work is cool and relevant. This is probably the first real brand effort that Darigold has had in over a decade and the performance overall is fantastic.” Central to its success is the fact that Darigold really can claim a deliciousness-straight-from-the-farm point of difference, because the butter, sour cream and cottage cheese maker keeps close relationships with local farms, and their butter, at least, can arguably be put in the artisan category of food making.
And this point is central to Wexley’s success, as well. While the exterior of Wexley itself, and even its name, can be considered wacky, there’s nothing wacky about the approach of McAllister and Cohen, who, for various clients, take strategy and careful planning to venues like beer busts, vacant factory parties and grounded sled patrols on the state capitol. Godwin continues, “One cool thing is that Wexley doesn’t have a media buying arm, so it doesn’t have an agenda there. It comes from a very refreshing, totally strategic place. You can tell the people there love what they do.”
A hybrid of traditional advertising, social media events, event planning and media conduits that cannot be categorized because the agency has made them up, Wexley captures consumers’ eyeballs and hearts with the goal of increasing numbers—be they sales, fans, rating points or whatever. “Our marketing dollars are now spent so efficiently,” Godwin praises. “It really is the most talented group. Ian is a rarity in that he’s one of the most creative people you’ll ever meet, but he can present a marketing plan that shows you he truly understands your brand and he truly cares about it.”
At the agency, which, by the way, loses the Chinese restaurant motif once you’re all the way inside, two stories of offices offer a through-the-rabbit-hole change of ambience from room to room. A conference room is pure white, with a grand piano at the center. A restroom upstairs is gaudily bedecked in ’80s kitsch, with foil wallpaper, jars of “coke”—faux cocaine—and a selection of condoms. Everywhere you look at Wexley, there’s something to see.
In the creative department, for example, the staff gathers for daily status meetings at Jellystone National Park-type picnic benches and tables, near the airstream trailer of Cohen and McAllister’s offices. It’s an environment that seems to say to its inhabitants, “Hey, this is all playful and everything because we’re expecting you to come up with ideas like beef jerky contests and ticket sales campaigns for soccer teams that don’t exist.” Which the creatives have done.
For Oberto’s beef jerky line, the agency concocted a Grab & Win contest on Facebook, which directed the brand’s fans to check in on its page as often as possible and click a Grab & Win tab to ultimately win an assload of jerky. After three months of fervent action among thousands of players, Oberto fan Julia, of Andover, Ohio, won the booty. A Wexley producer flew to her town and led an ass carrying a saddle-load of savory snacks straight to her home. The gentle donkey lumbered through the streets, earning lots of attention. While they were there, the agency shot a social media spot of Julia and the ass. She couldn’t have been more pleased.
For the Seattle Sounders, Wexley created an identity before there was an actual soccer team. Client Kevin Griffin had a unique idea he wanted the agency to consider. Cohen says, “They came to us with a logo and no team. How do you come up with something for nothing? They wanted us to help them sell out a giant stadium. We decided to take it to the streets and came up with ‘Scarf Seattle.’” The agency blanketed Seattle and environs with thousands of scarves, hanging them from trees and filling the streets, to generate excitement for the city’s newest sports franchise. “We broke every record in the league for ticket sales, and sold out every game,” Cohen says. Griffin marveled at Wexley’s “breathtaking” ability to “connect the deep brand meaning created to a specific brand behavior, both internally and with our fans.”
Cohen and McAllister met in 1999, when they were both working at Seattle ad agency Hammerquist & Saffel. Cohen, who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, attended the University of North Carolina and after graduating went on to the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, Georgia, for copywriting. From there, he worked at Hammerquist & Saffel on brands such as K2, Olin Skis and The North Face. He then moved to Wieden+Kennedy, working on Nike, Amazon and Miller. McAllister, who comes from Detroit, Michigan, began as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Before long, he switched to advertising, and worked at agencies including WONGDOODY, Foote, Cone & Belding and Publicis, working on accounts including Coca-Cola, Nike, ESPN, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), Amstel Light and NASCAR.
As two writers heading up a shop, they have a toolbox of talents and instincts, which allows them to lead art directors, producers, account people and an account planner with a vision that is all their own. Although they do TV, they are not married to it. They truly want to create whatever form will ignite passion. Some of their stunts defy logic. And budgets.
A Windows Phone 7.5 launch for Microsoft resulted in a giant phone in Herald Square, New York. It was a behemoth structure, a live experience Wi-Fi’d and animated, with streaming content and real-time tweets. The phone, which was as big as a building, received 18,000 tweets and over 900,000 viewings on YouTube. How would one even approach the budget for such a set piece? McAllister assures that it was done within a budget and timeline carefully calculated by producers.
Staffing a variety of departments with recruits who are pretty much creative jacks-of-all-trades could be challenging to some. “One day someone could be painting a 1940 tractor for Darigold and the next day that same person could be thinking of an eBay idea for Sephora, then the next day posting something funny for the Oberto Beef Jerky Facebook page. It’s all over the place,” Cohen says. “But the consistent theme is that whatever that person is working on, it is on-brand, creative as hell, smart, deftly targeted and, most importantly, working.
“We definitely look for people with a wide variety of skills and different backgrounds,” he continues. “For example, when Cal and I were looking for a head of production, we wanted to find someone who could do more than just produce TV, radio and print. We knew lots of traditional producers and felt like we could freelance them if we had to. But since the world was moving toward creating different things, we sought out someone who would approach production differently. So we hired Gabe Hajiani, who had a degree in architecture and had owned his own metalworks company. He was a producer by nature, but he was a true builder. He understood how to construct things and deconstruct them. So we were instantly able to build things and do things other agencies couldn’t at the time. And we could do them ourselves—not farm it out. That really helped us move freely from traditional advertising into events and experiential engagements. We think like that when we hire: what else can that person do or what other skill do they bring to the table that will help our agency sell differentiating work to clients and ultimately help them stand out, too?”
McAllister adds, “As an industry, creative advertising has a lot of fans. With our reputation, we see a lot of résumés. I’ve always likened it to a magician and his magic act. Ninety-five percent of a magician’s job is practicing a trick again and again and again until it is perfect and, for him, the magic might be gone. Five percent of the time, he’s in front of a willing audience and there are oohs and ahhs, and for a moment everyone wants to be a magician, to do what he can do. What the public sees is also only five percent of our job. So, we need to filter out the fans from the workers. We don’t save lives, but the work is difficult and can be tedious. We need people who love difficult and tedious.” ca