POV: Interview with Ian Cohen, Co-Founder of Wexley School For Girls
Welcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourself.
My name is Ian Cohen. I’m co-founder and creative director of The Wexley School for Girls. I was born in Bethesda, Maryland, where President Reagan had his colon operated on, raised in Durham, North Carolina on the campus of Duke University and now live in Seattle, Washington, where the global headquarters of Wexley School for Girls somehow exists.
I own Wexley with my friend and partner, Cal McAllister. We are the sole owners, though we do have a great senior leadership team. I went to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (Spartans not Tarheels!) and majored in PR, and then I went to the Portfolio Center in Atlanta to study advertising. I’ve always loved having a background in PR because I think it made me — and still makes me — approach advertising a bit differently. Anyhow, I started my career as a copywriter at a small, but amazing sports-minded agency in Seattle called Hammerquist and Saffel. I was the only writer beside my boss and got fantastic opportunities right away to work on brands like K2 Skis, Sims Snowboards, Diadora Soccer and The North Face. It was a dream job, and since we were small I got to present to clients and get involved with their business from day one on many levels beside just ads. Then I was lucky enough to go to Wieden & Kennedy in Portland. It was a wonderful experience and I loved working on Nike and other world leading brands as well as experiencing the production perfection that is W+K. Both places were incredibly creative, collaborative and the clients never felt like clients.
What led to the founding of Wexley School for Girls? Where did the name of the company come from?
I had just finished working at Wieden & Kennedy in Portland and my wife wanted to return to Seattle. I had been talking and lamenting to my good friend and future partner Cal McAllister, who was at Publicis at the time, about the fact that there was nowhere I wanted to work in Seattle. We both saw a void in an intensely creative, nationally focused shop in the city. So, being as naïve as we were, we started an agency. We also saw that the world of advertising was changing. This was 2003; TiVo was scaring the ad industry to death and people were starting to think about things besides ads. But no one really understood what that meant. At the same time, Cal and I had been talking about how we would show ideas that weren’t traditional ads but that we thought would be more effective. The clients would always say, “but we have the media bought, you have to do the TV spot or this print ad.” So we thought, let’s start something where the media isn’t bought first and it’s all about the big idea, then you buy the media that is the right media to support that idea — or no paid media at all. This was before YouTube. There were some brave clients out there, but not a lot. And to make things more confusing for prospective clients, we decided to name the agency Wexley School for Girls. The name comes from one of these three stories:
- We were two guys who always wanted to get into a girls’ school.
- We named it after a group of cantaloupe farming nuns from Wexleyshire, England who believed in a holistic way of farming.
- We made it up and added the School for Girls part as a double dog dare.
Tweet me and I’ll tell you the right answer.
You call yourselves a fan factory. Is Wexley an advertising agency? How do you differentiate yourself from others in the market?
We are an advertising agency. But the world of advertising has changed significantly. There are very few brands that can survive on one-way advertising. Brands and products need to create relationships with their customers. We call that gaining fans. A fan is a high value consumer — they buy your products and tell their friends. Brands need to create fans of their brands so the word of mouth spreads and the products are already sold before they launch. Look at Apple. For us, fans have a much deeper appreciation of your brand and to be frank, will spend a ton more money. That’s the end goal, but you have to be very authentic with this fan acquisition. You have to really want fans, not just the money, or you will get neither.
How do you think the traditional definition of advertising is evolving?
We have a saying here that “everything is advertising.” We truly believe that it is our job to recognize and help the clients realize that everything they do matters to a customer or potential customer. For example, we will look at something as simple as the phone answering system. That is a major touch point with customers, yet most people don’t care what they have for that. It is a chance to brand, sooth or entertain. And it is something they are already doing. We look at all touch points and see if they are being utilized in the right way. For me, that is how advertising is evolving. There is so much out there, how is your brand or product cutting through and standing out?
Wexley is known for its unique approach to new business development (sending videos to “blackmail” an executive or jumping out of an over-sized backpack). Do you think the new business and pitch process is broken?
Well, jumping out of backpacks didn’t actually work, but we have done a lot of fun things that have worked. But in the end it comes down to sitting across the table and just having meaningful conversations with zero bullshit. I was fortunate to work in my past with clients that never felt like clients, meaning we all felt like we were working on solving marketing challenges together. As a team. We look for that now. And because we are small, we are as selective about who we work with as they are. It makes for great relationships. And better work.
As for the pitch process, yes it’s broken. Watch the show “The Pitch.” There’s nothing natural about a pitch on either side. And nothing is gained doing spec creative except an amazing amount of strain on the agency and I presume a client as well. We try not to participate in pitches that require free creative. They are too costly and not a true representation of the work that needs to be done. Our best work is done in collaboration with our clients — we can’t get that partnership in a pitch. And our work is our intellectual property we get paid to do.
As a small, independent agency, what advantages do you have when pitching new clients?
We are flexible and you get what you see. You also get to work directly with the best and brightest minds in the world. We have world-class people but no layers. Since we’re not part of a holding company, we have flexibility about investing — in work, in staff, in clients.
Wexley works with companies such as Microsoft, Nike, Wilson Tennis and Copper Mountain. What have been some of your favorite projects to work on and why?
At Wexley we’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on some of the best brands and products in the world. Nike, Wilson and Microsoft speak for themselves, but we’ve also been able to establish new brands such as the Seattle Sounders MLS soccer team as a leading brand in the world of soccer in just four years. That is something I am most proud of. As well as work with Oberto Beef Jerky, as they challenge the behemoth in their category, Jack Links. I love that work, and am excited to be part of their growth story.
We’ve worked with Microsoft for nine years. We’ve done so many exciting things that many people wouldn’t expect from them. I think we’ve worked with every department there, from Xbox to System Servers. But with everything we do, we are just trying to make consumer connections and memorable communication for them. Last year to launch the Windows Phone, we built a six-story tall phone in the heart of NYC with real live tiles to demonstrate what we thought was the key point of difference for them. When we were working with Microsoft College Recruiting we built a Jobcuzzi — for the world’s most relaxing job interview. People perceive Microsoft as this huge corporate entity. We see them as people and always strive to show their human side.
We’ve also worked on Copper Mountain Ski Area for five years. They are fantastic and the best place to ski in the world. We also have a few new clients we just started working with that are amazing. A few of my favorite pieces we have ever done are:
Darigold: Farmalicious Billboard
Darigold: Farmalicious Tractor Fleet
Darigold: Farmalicious Fun Fridge Spectacular
There is a debate that there is too much “risk-aversion” in the advertising industry, and agencies need to be evolving and innovating in order to remain relevant. What is your take on this debate?
I think we have grown due to the fact that we have no problems taking risks. Clearly — we’re an agency called Wexley School for Girls. We are founded on taking risks. These days our thought is that if you don’t take risks, that is the actual risk. Also, we don’t just blindly go into risky situations. There is a lot of strategy, planning and thought going into the ideas that seem risky.
What’s your criteria for creating a guerrilla marketing campaign?
Is it legal? Is it going to work? Is it going to be memorable? Is it going to be press worthy or talked about? Will there be real gorillas?
Favorite Ad of All Time:
Wow, that is tough. I really love an old TV ad in England for Tango Black Currant soda, where the president of Tango walks through the office of Tango, out the door, across England and to the cliffs of Dover, ripping off his shirt, putting on boxing gloves and taking on France. I’ve always loved the confidence and fun of that spot.
From a creative standpoint, my Uncle Steve. He was an art director and owned his own small agency. We would sit around when I was little and watch commercials and think, “why are 99 percent of these complete shit?” Yeah, I used that word when I was 12. That’s how bad most commercials were and still are. He encouraged me to get into this business, and still is my biggest supporter.
From a business standpoint, Hugh Saffel and Fred Hammerquist, the owners and creative directors of my first agency, for giving me the opportunity to own my own client relations and see how a small business works. Now that I have done it on my own, I constantly think, “ahhhhh, that’s what they were dealing with.” Like an old person realizing how silly they were as a teen, I owe them a lot of apologies and a ton of thanks for being able use what I learned there.
Must read book:
Here are two: “Devil in the White City,” for the dual history and mystery adventure and “The Book Thief” for the unique storyline and compelling writing.
Music that gets you in your zone:
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for the chance to talk about myself. My head is five times bigger now.