Wexley School For Girls, a 15-year Seattle independent agency, is closing sometime in the spring. Speaking exclusively to The Drum, agency owners Cal McAllister and Ian Cohen confirmed that Wexley, one of the city’s creative mainstays, will cease operations after completing its current client assignments. Wexley’s staff of 38 was informed of the move yesterday.
According to McAllister, the decision to close was not taken lightly, nor was it as a result of any internal or financial issues.
“It wasn't driven by some big fight, not driven by bankruptcy,” said McAllister. “There's still work to be done. We simply didn't want to grow by chasing work that wasn't fun for us to do anymore.”
While the work still ignited passion, the push for growth and chasing creative work that may not be as fulfilling merely to pay the bills, rather than concentrating on meaningful creativity, proved to be a key consideration.
The current changes in the agency business and the fact that brands are internalizing talent and teams to take on some of the work agencies have done in the past was also a consideration for Wexley.
“There are major shifts of what clients are expecting from agencies large and small,” noted McAllister. “They're keeping some of the best creative opportunities, where they used to rely on agencies, in-house. Super Bowl opportunities are, and we'll see on Sunday, being kept in-house. I think that the way work is coming to us, which is much more project-based, it's harder to build and to staff around that.”
Added Cohen: "There are a lot of fragmented budgets and marketing departments are fragmenting the assignments and the AOR (agency of record) world has shrunk considerably. Budgets have definitely taken hits. Instead of a budget going to one thing, a budget has to go to 2,000 things. You have to figure out how to get those things done now for a lot less and be a lot more flexible."
Creative, while still of significant importance to the industry, has, according to McAllister, changed a great deal since Wexley opened.
“I think our best opportunity to start something new goes back to what we did 15 years ago, which was look for the best opportunities to do something creative. I think the creative solutions are manifesting in different areas now. They're in products and start-ups, and these are marketing solutions and branding solutions, but we see a lot of situations where the marketing is a truly innovative feature of something. I think that's where a lot of the opportunities are. I would go so far as to potentially blow up the whole creative services model, not taking on assignments, but creating them,” said McAllister.
"There will always be places where truly creative solutions make a real impact," Cohen concurred. "And I think that there will be a lot more opportunities now and in the future where creativity can continue to shine for brands."
Additionally, as McAllister sees it, agencies like Wexley have helped pave the way for brand success, yet it may very well be time for creative talent to think bigger and to look at the broader opportunities the current landscape presents.
“In my mind, we've been making other people famous within our products and services for 15 years, and we've done some groundbreaking things. I'm inspired by the work that some of my teams created, and I think in the back of a lot of advertising people's minds they say, ‘I could do something like that.’”
McAllister believes that some of the smartest people in the world are in the advertising industry, which he thinks bodes well to an incubator model from products that are led by brands.
“We're good at differentiating commodities, and definitively commodities are not that hard to create. I'm not saying that's what's next,” he said. “I'm not going to reinvent the bowl of oatmeal, but I do think that there are many more creative opportunities than just a broader space. I think that's what it looks like next.”
A heritage of creativity
Long considered creative renegades and part of a handful of “famous” legacy Seattle agencies like Wongdoody, Cole & Weber and Creature (which closed in July 2016 after 14 years in the market, filing for bankruptcy), Wexley’s position in the agency world started as one of pure creativity with a distinctly Pacific Northwest feel.
“Some people say that Seattle is a bunch of misfits who just started heading west and then started heading north. They simply ran out of land and Seattle was the top corner of weirdness. Those misfits – I’m one of them,” explained McAllister, who arrived in the city 17 years ago, in an earlier conversation with The Drum for its Creative Cities Seattle project.
The name alone made the agency stand out. Rather than putting their names in the title, the two founders, McAllister and Cohen, wanted to take a different angle and put a stake in the ground as a fun agency that knew creative.
"I really loved the whole Wexley culture being set up about doing great work and being excited about it," said Cohen. "When you do that, everybody is rallying around creativity."
Wexley looked at the consumer experience differently, trying to mold a “fan factory” – creating fan experiences and passionate bases for the brands it worked with, including Copper Mountain ski resort, Brooks footwear, Rainier Beer, T-Mobile, Lyft, Nike, ESPN and Microsoft.
Though Wexley leaves an impressive body of work for many brands, they may likely be best known for the launch of the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer (MLS), activating a rabid and intelligent fan base through a wide-ranging, impactful grassroots campaign with the 2016 MLS champion team’s scarf as its centerpiece.
“That campaign is what people most identify us with,” said McAllister. “I think it was certainly one of the most innovative ways to launch a sports team in any league, in any sport, and people still talk about the way we wove the scarf into the campaign, which was a lot more than traditional advertising. What people remember was what was unexpected, and so I think that did great work for us.”
For his part, Cohen, who previously worked at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, agrees that the Sounders are a highlight, but work for Brooks — a statue outside of the company's Seattle headquarters called 'The Medalist,' made from running medals — holds a special place as well.
"For me, that's one of the most amazing things we've ever done because it's going to last forever and it's not an ad," he said. "It's a piece that's enduring. I think that's really amazing to be able to drive by it and say 'Look at that. We did that.'"
McAllister also points to other work, including a campaign with the US Army during the 2009 election in Afghanistan that utilized guerrilla tactics to help Afghans find places to vote, as significant and one that made a key impact.
A fond farewell
Wexley’s departure from the market signals a change in the industry, one brought about by substantial disruption, but it leaves a hole in Seattle’s creative world.
“I think there will be disappointment because, with some other agencies, we helped carry the flag for the industry,” said McAllister. “But I will humbly say that great things are happening all around Seattle, and it is an incredibly creative place.”
Added Cohen: "I think there will be shock. But I hope that the spirit of Wexley stays intact even though the physical part of won't exist."
Though a difficult decision to close, the owners know it will affect the people that came to call Wexley home. McAllister said he would miss those people immensely.
“We put together an amazing crew, and they're awesome. They dedicated much of their professional lives to us, we and they have always been team players in the way that they have shown up again and again to do exceptional things. That's almost irreplaceable,” he said.
Cohen added: "I've made some of my best friends in the world and those bonds never end. What I get from this is knowing that have a huge network of great friends and smart creative people that I've mentored — or they've mentored me — over the years."
Some of the staff has agreed to stay with the agency through to when they shut the doors, and McAllister said they would help as many as possible land jobs elsewhere, and he’s optimistic for their futures.
“Everybody feels it's a sad day, but also it's a great opportunity. We've never had to do layoffs in 15 years. The nice thing is, coming from Wexley School for Girls, at least so far, we found that people land pretty good jobs. There isn't anybody in the building who's not hireable to a good gig.”