SEATTLE—There are rubber chickens hanging in the agency’s storefront-like window facing 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. There’s a giant statue of Merlin greeting you at the door. There’s a jar full of white powder marked “cocaine” in the bathroom. The CEO’s office is decorated like a butcher shop, and the CCO’s office resembles a set piece from “Baywatch.”
But Cal McAllister and Ian Cohen, the “Headmasters” of Wexley School For Girls, insist the biggest misconception about them is, “People think we’re wacky, but we’re not.” After spending some time with them at their shop, I found out how right they are.
Between full-time and freelance jobs, I’ve probably experienced 50 or so agencies up close in my time. And I’ve known about Wexley’s work and office space for years. So I went to see Cal and Ian determined to learn why Wexley succeeds at what so many agencies try and fail to do: How can an agency successfully carve out a unique identity, build an unmistakable culture, and do great work? What’s the secret sauce here?
I’m not sure I learned the answer, and if I did they’d hate me for divulging it. But I learned a few things about Wexley that creatives — and agency heads — ought to know.
Wexley was started by two copywriters without a client. Which sounds crazy in the ad business, yet it totally makes sense once you consider the agency’s work and ethos. Prior to going to ad school, Ian worked in PR, and Cal was a journalist. With those backgrounds, I can see why they want their work, and the office itself, to be a topic of conversation and buzz. And while they do great commercials, the agency has done a lot of innovative event marketing, making it a point to dig deeper into a client’s business to find unique solutions. As a result, the agency positions itself as a “Fan Factory” that turns consumers into fans.
(Seattle, as I discovered when I moved here, is a soccer-crazy town. The Seattle Sounders — the team — and their fans have Wexley to thank for this.)
Now, making brand fans is a nice positioning for an agency. Lots of agencies make similar promises. So how does Wexley make it happen? As I learned, it takes more than just great ideas.
Unlike many creative people I know, even ones who own agencies, these guys know how to talk business on an intricate level. That struck me immediately when I first met Cal McAllister at the agency. He was coming out of a meeting, and his mind wasn’t on ads. It was focused on ROI. A prospective client looking for a 10x return on their marketing budget. That type of ROI, he said, was becoming an increasingly common request: “If I knew how to guarantee that, I’d do it myself.”
Having started their ad careers at smaller shops, Cal and Ian learned to make friends with their clients. It’s that basic understanding of business that’s part of the Wexley foundation. “I know how a sports team works, I know how milk gets on store shelves, and I understand how difficult it is to sell a burrito,” said Cal.
Another surprise, yet a logical one: Their work doesn’t tend to make clients nervous. Because before any work gets presented, there’s a lengthy research, planning, and briefing process (in which everyone at a client, up to the top management levels, signs off on the brief.) So by the time work gets presented, clients expect a great solution. Still, there’s always an element of surprise and delight. “We lose when we give clients what they want to see,” Cal said. “There is no safe version,” Ian added. “There’s the right version, and if there’s another idea presented, it’s also right.” Its work for Microsoft shows an ability to do great work for large, multi-layered clients.
Also important to the shop’s success, Cal said, is metrics. That a project has achieved its measurable objectives is crucial. Once a client sees that a campaign has been measurably successful, it proves the agency’s work truly works, and builds trust. And it seems to be paying off. In a business where there’s a lot of account shuffling, Wexley has gone from a mostly project-based shop to a mostly AOR-based shop in the past few years.
So what does Wexley hope the next few years will bring? Hopefully growth, and work with a higher national profile. What won’t change, Cal and Ian insist, is the promise they make to their employees. “We want to make this the best job they’ll have in their lives, doing the best work they’ll ever do in their careers,” Cal said.
With an outlook like that, it’s easy to see why an agency that’s a “Fan Factory” for brands has quite a few fans of its own.