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Originally published April 17, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified April 21, 2010 at 11:45 AM

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At Wexley School for Girls, they make money making magic

Wexley School for Girls is at the forefront of a tectonic shift in the way companies sell themselves to people and the way people triage the thousands of messages hurled at them each day from those who want their attention and money.

If you can't figure out what goes on behind the locked door at Wexley School for Girls, join the club.

From the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue in downtown Seattle, the office looks like an Asian restaurant, with red painted walls, matching red booths, rubber chickens hanging in a window and plates of sushi and other dishes on the tables.

Stepping inside doesn't help much. The first thing you see is a statue of Merlin the Magician beside a curving stairwell painted blue with white clouds.

Calling won't yield many clues, either. The voice-mail message features what sounds like a Bond girl cooing in a sultry British accent that "if you feel as though you're being avoided, please press zero and we'll take care of your every need."

Wexley School for Girls clearly doesn't relish the obvious and doesn't like to advertise itself, which is odd for a firm whose business is advertising.

Then again, the fact that Wexley comes off as a wee bit eccentric, a tad underground, suits big-name clients like Microsoft, Nike, ESPN and the Seattle Sounders just fine.

The firm is at the forefront of a tectonic shift in the way companies sell themselves to people and the way people triage the thousands of messages hurled at them each day from those who want their attention and money. Wexley is an ad firm tailor-made for the "broadcast yourself" YouTube age, where it's fun to pretend you're too cool to be snagged by even the cleverest of sales pitches, but cool enough to view marketing ploys as an alternate form of entertainment.

What founders Ian Cohen and Cal McAllister and managing director Brian Marr know is we are more like sheep than we want to think. Very little in our consumption-oriented daily lives happens without the influence of marketing and that often-used term, buzz.

Cachet and relevance are ever more elusive among the prized 18-to-34 prime advertising age bracket, a click-and-choose population that relies heavily on the Internet for its news, entertainment, shopping and social interaction. The day after Snickers debuted a Super Bowl commercial featuring octogenarian Betty White playing football, the former "Golden Girls" star became a YouTube sensation, her traditional 30-second TV spot generating hundreds of thousands of additional views in the Web's alternate universe.

Global branding companies like DMX, which has a branch in Seattle, have long specialized in slipping past our filters. They help clients "take olfactory control" using fragrances to lure customers into stores, and help infiltrate target audiences through sly product placement and text messaging. They don't create ads. They engineer experiences.

Wexley has positioned itself as a firm that thinks even further outside the box, whether that box is a TV screen or computer monitor or newspaper page.

Comedian Fred Allen's old quip that "advertising is 85 percent confusion and 15 percent commission" takes on new meaning at Wexley. Here, everything is a distortion of the familiar — a deliberate attempt to throw even the most conventional thinkers off kilter.

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A surreal "Pee-wee's Playhouse" aesthetic rules, only accentuated by the decidedly 20-something staff and the wacky office décor of the two career ad men who founded the firm.

A vintage Prowler trailer is parked in the main workroom, inside which the principals make job offers to no-doubt disoriented job-seekers.

When the creative juices stop flowing, employees can putt balls on a miniature-golf course made of artificial turf.

McAllister, 40, says his crew is made up of "young dudes and '80s kids," the kind of people who can make any day Casual Friday but who are serious about their work.

Life at Wexley is a far cry from the fictional depiction of advertising in the popular cable series "Mad Men," in which main character Don Draper and his male cohorts strut around the office in sleek gray suits, chain smoke and swig Scotch at every opportunity, all the while trying to keep their eyes off the buxom secretarial corps. Marr, formerly of Microsoft, where he led the word-of-mouth marketing campaign for the launch of Windows Vista, may keep bottles of Bulleit Bourbon and Vox Vodka tucked inside a decorative world globe in his office, but the regimented and chauvinistic world of "Mad Men," in which ad firms made kings of corporations, has largely disappeared. Now you have the likes of Microsoft coming to scrappy firms like Wexley to help them gain street cred with a generation that's openly hostile to the come-ons of big companies and brands.

Today it's more about getting into people's heads and under their skin. Making a sale can bring immediate financial rewards, but getting people to identify with a brand or an idea promises longer-term dividends.

NOT EVERYONE was sold on Wexley's approach when the firm started seven years ago, after both McAllister and Cohen left more traditional agencies.

"Our friends in the industry said, 'You guys are going to be around for three months,' " McAllister says. "We feel like we took a risk, and it worked out."

Now clients come to Wexley largely through referrals, all seeking what has been described as the "Wexley magic," the ability to make the orchestrated feel organic.

Wexley goes to great lengths to make target audiences feel a part of the action.

When Microsoft's Windows Live launched a couple of years ago, the team 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 would arrange themselves to create pixilated likenesses of people's faces on the sphere.

Other times, the marketing plan calls for something earthier.

Tom DesLongchamp, a 25-year-old art director at Wexley, says a favorite campaign of his is the one the firm did for Copper Mountain ski resort in Colorado, which mixes a retro ski-bum sensibility with guerrilla-marketing tactics such as dumping snow on an Austin, Texas, street in hopes it'll get people dreaming of taking their own, grown-up snow day.

He describes a Wexley-produced commercial to promote the resort's "Swinger's Pass," which has been a hit on YouTube, this way: "You're on a date with a needy mountain, but you're enticed by a different mountain, a hotter mountain."

"Society's becoming more skeptical toward advertising in general, so now it's like if you can convince people of an idea they agree with or a feeling they can relate to, it puts them in a place where they say, 'Hey, they can relate to me,' " DesLongchamp says.

At Story Trading, another small Seattle marketing firm that helps clients establish their brand identities, principal partner Peter Stocker says companies see growth potential in event-based marketing and social media to connect with the public. Plus, forums like Facebook and Twitter are cheaper to exploit and firms can get nearly instant feedback on whether their marketing strategies are working.

"Everybody's interested in having a two-way conversation with consumers because it helps them behave smarter," Stocker says. "But it's that intimacy with a brand that's tough to achieve."

To help kick off the Seattle Sounders' first soccer season last year, members of Wexley's staff gathered around midnight on a cold, wet winter evening with more than 4,000 bright-green Sounders scarves and banners in tow.

Goal: Make the city look as if it was covered in scarves — free scarves. Who doesn't like the idea of free loot?

Like elves on a secret mission, the team fanned out, hanging scarves in trees, wrapping them around statues in Fremont and placing a big one on top of the Tully's Coffee building along Interstate 5.

Suddenly, local soccer fans were tweeting about finding scarves all over town and swapping notes on what they did with them. The promotion, only the initial part of which the Sounders paid for, took on a life of its own.

Sounders marketing manager Stephanie Gray says the soccer team faces a peculiar challenge in Seattle, which already has well-established football and baseball teams that compete for the public's affection. Luckily, there's also a grass-roots base of soccer fanatics in Seattle, a natural market for building the Sounders as a local institution.

Gray says the team picked Wexley because many of its staffers are soccer fans and because the firm does things with a twist.

Gray recalls the Numbers campaign, which involved placing posters mostly around construction sites in Seattle and on the Eastside, each one printed with a number. As weeks passed, a different set of posters went up in the same locations, underneath the original posters, featuring images of Sounders players. The curious were directed to the Sounders Web site to learn more about them.

In this case, the Sounders weren't trying to sell tickets, one sure way to measure the promotion's success. The inaugural season was already sold out. The campaign was about something harder to gauge — helping locals bond with the new sports team, to think of the Sounders the same way they think of the Mariners or Seahawks.

"It was a great success because people were starting to identify our players," Gray says. "You have to be out there all the time and make sure people are talking about you."

With word-of-mouth and social-networking campaigns like this, it's as if the target market itself is part of the ad, extras in a production that, in the moment, feels genuine.

But once you unleash a campaign that involves a staged event or public participation, it's hard to control the variables.

Wexley has suffered the occasional fiasco. One time the firm held a promotional event at Crossroads Mall in Bellevue that featured a puppet show followed by a rather persistent and loud heavy-metal band. Talk about an awkward lineup. The audience simply wasn't into the band's performance, but even after their time on stage officially ended, they kept playing.

"They would not get off the stage," Cohen says. "They were blowing Jo-Ann Fabrics out of the water" with the decibel level.

Mall patrons started streaming for the exits.

When security tried in vain to pull the band's amplifier electrical cords, they just played louder. Ultimately, the police were called and security literally chased the band out of the building.

"It was like a 'Saturday Night Live' skit," Cohen says with a laugh.

AFTER A MEETING one day, Marr walks in with what looks like a Valentine's Day present, a beautifully wrapped bar of dark chocolate with a note attached. It's a resume.

The female candidate who sent it has included a cover letter that reads like a love note: "I need to confess that I have a little crush on you," it goes. "I think the work you do is amazing and I feel in the bottom of my heart that we would make magic together."

There's that word again — magic.

Everybody wants to make magic with Wexley. For its survival, it needs staffers who can help them make money, too, especially in a recession that has forced companies to tighten their ad budgets and ad campaigns by going a la carte, rather than on retainer. Rooting out the goofballs from the serious ad people is tough because they don't want to overlook promising talent.

"We got a cake once," Marr says of one job applicant's pitch.

"We got a pig's heart, too," Cohen offers.

"It said, 'Let's meat,' " Marr adds dryly.

"Someone showed up dressed as an orca once," Marr says.

He reaches for a laptop and downloads a resume from a Los Angeles-based videographer who sent his in the form of a rap-music video.

Generally, these off-the-wall resumes impress. As McAllister says of his creative staff, "We tend to hire people who are pretty masochistically excited about getting around roadblocks."

But at Wexley, goofiness is a means not an end.

"Our whole deal isn't about being shocking and outrageous," Cohen says. "It's about being strategically right."

Wexley doesn't pretend to know exactly how many people buy into a particular sales pitch or make a consumer choice based on their work. On the frontiers of advertising, reliable mileposts are hard to come by.

"Maybe you don't make the sale right there," Cohen explains. "But if people become fans of the Sounders on Facebook, for example, we can continue to follow them there.

"It's rarely one thing. It's more of a series of things that create an impression in a person's mind."

The Sounders' Stephanie Gray says the team picked Wexley expecting a wild ride, but shaking things up is the whole point.

Now other sports teams around the country are looking to the Sounders as a model for how to build grass-roots support, she says.

"Sometimes there is a risk to picking an agency that gets a little wacky," she says, noting that Wexley makes an effort to work closely with the team to make sure the two stay in sync.

"Sometimes they get a little carried away," she says. "But that's good."

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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