NOTHING AT THIS AD AGENCY is what you expect. I mean nothing. Not the Web site that opens with a hand-drawn, boobs-censored angel. Not the six-foot statue of Merlin in flowing robes that greets you at the door on Fifth Avenue. Not the ’70s Prowler house trailer they found on Craigslist (for $4,700, a good buy) that is now one of the company’s conference rooms.
And most certainly not the name. Wexley School for Girls is what Cal McAllister and Ian Cohen came up with when they split from other ad agencies (Seattle’s Publicis, in McAllister’s case; Wieden and Kennedy in Portland in Cohen’s) five years ago and decided to start an agency that would be unlike any other. After years spent crammed into tiny offices on the Queen Anne side of the Fremont bridge, they moved their staff of 22 last September to a 6,900-square-foot space in Belltown.
The reception area is a faux Chinese restaurant. There’s a “sweatshop” in the back for the video and Web producers. The front room is a Vegas vision all in white, with white iconic busts of Elvis, a white piano, and a television screen bordered in fake white fur. When you call McAllister, an Englishwoman’s voice regrets to inform you that he can’t take your call because he’s “engaged on a Ride the Ducks tour across the river Thames.” When you call Cohen the same lady says that you’ve reached the voice mail of “one of the most dashing men in the world.”
“It’s really obvious to us what our clients hate about ad agencies,” says McAllister. “So we try to not do that.” That means no sterile PowerPoint presentations. No stuffed shirts sitting around a conference table. But eschewing tradition doesn’t mean that Wexley eschews mainstream success. In fact, they have one of the most enviable client lists in the industry: Microsoft, Pepsi, Nike, and Old Navy.
Projects run the gamut from Web sites (such as a “Beat the Man Down” game for digital marketers Atlas that allows you to bash your boss over the head with a stapler) to sardonic short films (see “Winner Take Steve” on www.wexley.com, a Nike promo in which two young runners race to see who will get to be called Steve by the coach) and guerrilla marketing (they snuck an inflatable doll dressed like Pete Rose into Safeco Field for a potential campaign for Pony sportswear and filmed people saying, “Hall of Fame, man” to the doll until they were kicked out of the stadium). Just about anything to get attention. Sometimes they’ll find out everything they can about a potential client, record a song about his traits (“You’re more than a man, you’ve got lasers for eyes and four swords for your hands”), mail it to him, and wait for business to pour in, explains managing director Brian Marr, who sports a Chris Isaak rockabilly ’do.
“Our goal is to have clients enjoy everything that we do. We utilize every point of interaction that we have,” says McAllister. “People like to just come here and hang out.”