The Wexley Way: How to Think Creatively in 8 Easy Steps
BY Max Chafkin
Wexley School for Girls is an amped-up media-agnostic advertising agency that will do just about anything to attract business for clients. Here, the Wexley team pulls back the curtain on their creative process. Hint: the Olympics may be coming to Seattle.
"Lots of people say, 'Let's make a viral video and put it on YouTube" says Wexley's Cal McAllister.
"But you have to do more to be successful."
Do what exactly? Inc. asked McAllister -- and fellow Wexleyites Brian Marr and Ian Cohen -- to take us through their creative process, using a hypothetical example: the launch of a new health club in the imaginary Seattle suburb of Wexlandia. The gym has two floors of exercise equipment, an indoor running track, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and lots of competition.
Step 1: Ask the Right Questions
Before taking on a project, Wexley asks about a company's business, marketing goals, and reputation. But the most important question is this: What sets your company apart from your competitors? It sounds easier to answer than it is. "A lot of clients say, 'We have simply the best cheeseburger in Seattle," McAllister says. "But you see that claim on every restaurant menu." A unique quality should be one that your customers recognize, not the same old line you've been repeating for years.
Step 2: Research
Wexley's creative team doesn't do formal surveys to figure out what customers think -- that's way too expensive -- but they'll sample the company's product or service. "You need to talk to people who aren't drinking the Kool-Aid," McAllister says. In the case of the fitness club, that would mean making visits to local clubs in the area and casually chatting up gym members.
Step 3: Don't overthink
In trying to come up with a marketing concept -- How about a guy in a fat suit? What if we staged a horse vs. man race? What if we submitted a bid to host the Olympics? -- Wexley's creative types throw out dozens of silly ideas. "We look for something smart but a little ridiculous," McAllister says. "The idea is to use humor to make friends with our potential consumers." Most of the time, McAllister says, Wexley is looking for something small -- a "nugget" that can become the focal point of the campaign.
Step 4: Look at what everyone else is saying and say the opposite
To get your creative juices flowing, study your competitors' advertisements. "You can let the competition's marketing do a lot of the heavy lifting," Cohen says, by focusing on qualities that other companies aren't talking about. If everyone is touting their passion for fitness, it doesn't matter that you have a passion for fitness; you're message will be lost. Because no Seattle health clubs are aggressively touting their Olympic-sized pools, Wexley settles on an Olympic-themed campaign with the following message: "Now that we have an Olympic pool there is no reason we cannot be a host city."
Step 5: Think beyond media
Although Wexley spends a lot of time and money on television, print, and Internet advertisements, the company always tries to bring it together with an event or stunt that is likely to generate press. "We often start by asking 'What's the headline?" Cohen says. By promoting the Olympic-sized pool, the club can latch onto media stories about the 2010 Winter Games. To make sure the reporters take notice, Wexley plans mock-rallies and Olympic-style competitions at the health club.
Step 6: Pass it on
If you can't afford for a live event -- and even if you can -- you should also establish a Web presence. For the Olympic campaign, Wexley plans a standalone website, www.bringthegamestoWexlandia.com with an online petition and a funny video explaining the bid. The goal is to get potential customers to spend an extended period of time on the site -- at least a few minutes -- and to get them to tell their friends by electronically sharing the petition and the video.
Step 7: Measure
Ten years ago, the only reliable way to measure the success of a campaign was to commission a telephone survey. But thanks to the people's increased willingness to blog, Twitter, or "friend" a company, it has gotten a lot easier to take stock of your brand in real time without spending any money. McAllister says that companies should regularly check new mentions on Google, traffic to the website, and the number of new fans on Facebook, to see if a message is breaking through.
Step 8: Be realistic
In one important respect, marketing success in new media is no different from success in old media: it takes lots work and it's not guaranteed. Don't count on that $500 video turning into $5 million in sales. A reasonable goal is a revenue bump that is five times what you spent on the campaign. And there are some challenges -- for instance, selling cars in 2009 -- for which smart marketing just isn't be enough. "I don't know if there's a great idea for a car dealership," McAllister says. Then he reconsiders: "Maybe on the longest day of the year, they could hold a Longest Sale of the Year."
Last updated: Feb 19, 2009
Senior contributing writer MAX CHAFKIN has profiled companies such as Yelp, Zappos, Twitter,
Threadless, and Tesla for the magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @chafkin