In its 15 years, The Wexley School for Girls made a national reputation for its off-beat approach to marketing and advertising.
It’s not always restaurants or dive bars or little old ladies’ homes that produce a pang of loss when they say goodbye to Seattle.
Sometimes it’s an ad agency with a quirky name and a prime spot on Fifth Avenue that says it’s a school — but from the street looks like a Chinese restaurant, with red Naugahyde booths and rubber chickens hanging in the window.
Wexley School for Girls is out not just for the summer, but forever, its signature, Seattle-style creativity scattered to other shops.
Founders Cal McAllister and Ian Cohen decided to close not for financial reasons or because a developer wanted the space, but because its long-term business model — billable hours — prevented it from growing beyond a certain point. In addition, many companies are handling advertising in-house, and are focused on projects, rather than long-term branding and advertising.
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“Ian and I just didn’t see the path to continuing the kind of creative work that put us on the map,” McAllister said recently.
Indeed, in its 15 years, Wexley School for Girls — or just “Wexley” — made a national reputation for its offbeat approach to marketing and advertising.
Among its greatest hits: The original campaign for the Seattle Sounders, which had Wexley staffers blanketing the city with green scarves before the team’s first season; and the team’s “March to the Match,” which was pivotal in building a loyal, fun-loving fan base.
For the launch of Microsoft’s Windows Live, Wexley set up a seven-story sphere on a pier in Manhattan that projected images sent in from Windows users and people on the street. The images rearranged themselves to create pixilated likenesses of people’s faces on the sphere.
And who could forget Darigold’s “Better Butter Mayor” contest of 2013, when Wexley commissioned a butter carver to set up shop at Darigold headquarters and carve Mike McGinn and challenger Ed Murray out of butter, then let Darigold Facebook fans vote for the winner? (McGinn won that popular vote, but not the actual election.)
Inside, the Wexley office was just as offbeat. Along with the rubber chickens was a nine-hole miniature-golf course; a statue of Merlin the Magician; and a vintage Prowler trailer parked in the center of the room, where McAllister and Cohen retreated to make job offers.
“I thought we had a pretty great thing and great people,” McAllister said, noting that all of the former staffers have landed well. Former partner and executive team member Christine Wise, for example, was snatched up by Seattle firm DNA to be its new chief strategy officer. A receptionist had her salary doubled by Amazon.
“I hope they take the Wexley culture with them,” McAllister said of his former staff. “They now have some expectations for how impactful fun work can be.”
The 8-foot-tall chainsaw-carved wooden bear went to an employee’s cabin in Idaho. And the nine-hole golf course, which had to be broken into pieces?
“We couldn’t pay people to take it away,” McAllister said.
Eventually, the side of the building will be painted over, and the 5 p.m. crawl down Fifth Avenue will have no pencil sharpeners, bird heads or Minotaurs to break the monotony.
Most people in Seattle had no idea what was going on inside the place, but just loved seeing Wexley School for Girls in session, keeping Seattle a little strange.
McAllister, 48, has launched his own agency called The Paper Crane Factory and is partnering with the early-stage venture-capital fund Stage dot O, which provides startups funding and support — but not much in the way of marketing.
“With Paper Crane, we’re able to work with companies in that very early, have-an-idea stage,” McAllister said, “and get them past the family and friends success circle to real consumers.
“Paper Crane is the person that you call when you have a terrific idea and you need some creative ideas to help that idea spread and grow,” he continued. “There will be a lot of humor. That will always be a part of it.
“But it’s about creative solutions where there aren’t a lot of rules yet.”
McAllister is already working with Austin-based RealSavvy, which builds analytics for high-end residential properties; and the set-to-launch Plotify, a London-based startup that streamlines real-estate investment in the U.K. and the U.S.
He named the company Paper Crane after officiating at the wedding of a friend who is Japanese, and whose family made a senbazuru — 1,000 paper cranes held together by string — for the occasion.
“The tradition is … to show the couple they had support on their new journey together,” McAllister said. “Over the years, I read up on it and loved the symbolism of everyone being behind you, supporting you and wishing you good luck.
“We are working with new companies, primarily,” he continued, “and I wanted to show them that they had the support and skill of a family of people behind them as they go on their new venture.
“That, and the domain name was available.”
McAllister has also launched a project called Chemo Kitchen, an online cookbook for those caring for people being treated for cancer. McAllister was inspired to start the project by his mother, Joan, a breast-cancer survivor who used to complain about how treatments changed her sense of taste.
McAllister and chef Eric Tanaka — Tom Douglas Kitchens partner and executive — recruited celebrated local and national chefs to develop and contribute recipes that are easy to prepare and with few ingredients, perfect for caregivers to put together after a tough day and for patients to actually taste and enjoy.
“It’s a labor of love,” McAllister said of the cookbook — and the act of using it.
Not long ago, McAllister was going over some legal paperwork at home when a workman overheard him mention Wexley School for Girls.
“Oh, I love that place!” the workman said. He had never been inside, and had no idea what went on there.
“It was humbling,” McAllister said. “There were a lot of people who came out of the woodwork that cared about what we did. We were part of Seattle’s creative community, and part of the culture.
“But it’s also an inspiration to do it again, and do it even bigger.”