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Originally published Sunday, November 10, 2013 at 5:31 AM

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Girls just wants to have fun

Nicole Brodeur sits down with Cal McAllister, the unconventional ad man behind the Wexley School for Girls, whose clients include Microsoft, Darigold and the Seattle Sounders.


Seattle Times columnist

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Few people could look so at home in a room populated with Minotaurs, trapeze artists and Mayor Mike McGinn as Cal McAllister.

The CEO of the Wexley School for Girls with the cartoon boy-genius name was the unofficial prom king of his company’s recent 10-year anniversary party, at which the Seattle ad agency’s 35 employees, their clients and friends filled the Emerald City Trapeze Arts building barely dressed, plainly dressed or dressed as animals.

At the center of one room was McAllister, besuited in Hugo Boss, taking it all in. And thinking.

This party was just the kind of thing he and Wexley want to create for clients, and therefore, everyone.

“I stood there and thought, ‘If it works at this level, how do we scale it bigger?’ ” McCallister, 43, asked over lunch the other day. “There were so many smiles, how do we exponentially create that?”

You may not know McAllister, but he — and his creative touch — are seemingly everywhere these days, from the frenzied fan base of the Seattle Sounders that he helped ignite; to the packed room for his speech at the recent Seattle Interactive Conference, at which he urged people to “find joy in your message, the excited young child”; to the “Butter Mayor” race, a Facebook campaign for Darigold, in which people voted for their preferred butter-carved likeness of the Seattle mayoral candidates.

And, not least, the recent reinstallation of the Rainier “R” (now a trademark owned by Pabst) atop the old brewery in SoDo.

Last week, McAllister and his team were in New York City, placing 12 giant check marks all over the city to promote Microsoft 365, a cloud-based service. They’re employing the Upright Citizens Brigade and launching street teams with Surface tablets to create a veritable Mad Libs game in the center of Times Square.

People aren’t seeing an ad. They’re part of an experience.

“There is no better way in the world to get a message out at a specific point in time than to run an ad on Super Bowl Sunday,” McAllister said. “But people think they only have one shot. The foundation of our company is that clients have more shots than they can possibly imagine.”

Look at the Darigold “Butter Mayor” campaign: A high-profile race, with all eyes on the two candidates — but with a Wexley twist: Something unexpected, and engaging, since people were able to vote on which sculpture they liked “butter.” (Unlike the actual election, McGinn won.)

You roll your eyes, and McAllister smiles. Remember the line from the Seattle Interactive Conference: “Find joy in your message, the excited young child.”

“Most people haven’t seen a butter sculpture since the fourth grade,” he said.

So there’s a little bit of P.T. Barnum in Cal McAllister — not exactly the “sucker born every minute” part, but the showman who creates a smile that lingers, and thereby builds a brand.

McAllister was born in Detroit and attended Ohio State University, where he got a journalism degree. He was a stringer for the Chicago Tribune (“The gangs in Chicago were so much better organized than the government,” he quipped) and, on the side, wrote copy for an ad agency that paid him by the hour what the Trib paid him for a day.

He was writing for things like the back of Baldwin lock sets when a colleague urged him back to school, at the Creative Circus in Atlanta.

Afterward, he moved to Seattle to work at Hammerquist & Saffel, and later WongDoody, where he worked on campaigns like those for the Seattle Sonics and Real Networks.

Alaska Airlines was a client, too, until the crash of Flight 261 in 2000. The company stopped all advertising, leading to massive layoffs at the agency. McAllister was one of them.

He was working a stint at Publicis Seattle when a former Hammerquist colleague, Ian Cohen, invited him to start their own shop.

“The plan was to make a place where people would do the best work of their careers,” McAllister said, “and enjoy their job more than any they’ve ever had.”

And the name? Wexley was picked out of the phone book as “Wesley,” but someone misheard it as “Wexley.” The “School for Girls” was tacked on as a lark.

They moved into a Fifth Avenue office building and turned their workplace into a creative playhouse with its own nine-hole miniature golf course, travel camper and themed rooms like “The Vault,” where all the accounting takes place.

But no one is fooling around.

Their approach to advertising: Devising an experience that creates a fan instead of a consumer. (Well, a fan that spends money ...) And in the social-media culture of “share” and “like,” the “fans” do much of the advertising themselves.

Cal McAllister — his given name is Shawn, but a friend’s nickname for him stuck — lives in Laurelhurst with his wife, Amanda. They met at her boyfriend’s 30th birthday party (“It wasn’t like I was gonna get anywhere,” he remembered of their first meeting) and were engaged before they had even kissed.

They now have two daughters, Paige, 5, and Annie, 2.

“Every waking moment that I spend within earshot, if not in the room with my girls, well,” McAllister said, “there isn’t anything I’d rather be doing.”

He runs a few mornings a week and is an admitted clotheshorse.

“Yeah,” McAllister said, a little resignedly. Theory is his go-to brand.

And he’s not just about creative capitalism: recently, he partnered with Tom Douglas’ right-hand man, Eric Tanaka, to publish “The Chemo Cookbook,” designed for those caring for people undergoing cancer treatment.

The 52 recipes (one for every week of the year) are simple, five-ingredient affairs with just one pot.

“The premise is that once you get cancer, it turns people into completely untrained caregivers, especially when it comes to nutrition,” McAllister said.

The recipes stay within medical recommendations, but “turn a caregiver into a chef” who can enjoy both taste and a little extra time. It also gives those who want to help something to do. Cut carrots. Stir the pot. Sit with me in the kitchen.

The book, due out in the spring, was inspired by McAllister’s mother, who survived breast cancer. It will be all-digital, and free. Whatever money people donate will go into a travel fund for family members to see people in treatment.

It’s all part of McAllister’s plan for Beyond Wexley.

“After Wexley — and I don’t think there is going to be an ‘after Wexley’ — I’d like to help people well beyond my personal circle and enjoy life a little more in the simplest possible way.”

McAllister was going to give Seattle only a year, and some people only gave Wexley three months, when he and Cohen started it. Turns out this is right where they belong.

“Seattle is a community that is supportive of different and unique ideas,” McAllister said. “People are willing to hear what we have to say. And it’s the least formulaic place I’ve ever been. So it’s a nice marriage.”

So 10 years later, the party rages on, Minotaurs and all.

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com



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About Nicole & Co.

Every Sunday, I bring you a conversation with a local who is doing something great, or a great who is doing something local: media personalities, big thinkers, visiting artists, colorful characters and doers of all kinds.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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