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Emma Quinn, Creative Director

Have you ever wished you could go back to high school? For some, that may sound like a nightmare — or just the plot of that movie you watched that one time. But for a group of Alcone-ites in December of 2019, it was an opportunity to get out of the office (remember those?) and share some marketing knowledge with a class of 11th graders.

The school was Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in NYC, or WHEELS for short. It’s a public school in the north of Manhattan bordering the Bronx. And it’s full of ambitious, remarkable young people: 90% of WHEELS students who go to college are the first in their families to do so. We were set to meet with around 30 students who had an interest in marketing and wanted to learn what it was like to do it full time.

We ran through a fun itinerary, with a mini-brainstorm, a Q&A session, and a rundown of roles. The students were amazed that a love of sketching, writing, celebrities or sports could lead to a corporate career. And they had fantastic questions — about our majors, our interests, our career goals. There was more ambition in that room than in any high school classroom I’d ever stepped foot in. We headed home, a day well-spent, minds wandering back to our deadlines.

Then 2020 rolled around. And our WHEELS partnership took on a new meaning as Washington Heights became one of the first communities in the country to be truly devastated by COVID-19.

Friends of WHEELS, an organization supporting the school, reached out to see if we could help them build a social fundraising campaign to promote their first digital gala, replacing their biggest fundraising event of the year.

So we turned our roundtable discussion into a war room, working to build the most ambitious social campaign they had ever attempted. We called it “WHEELS: Forward Together” and rooted it in stories about students, teachers, small businesses and the community. They surpassed their fundraising goal, and the gala was a hit. But that wasn’t even the best part — because we got to work with the most wonderful clients we’ve ever had.

From hearing the excitement from their team around the campaign, to cutting together videos of seniors who’d just been accepted to their dream school, to learning about the local bookstore funding a scholarship even as their business struggled with the pandemic, we had the immense honor of doing what we all strive for in this industry, which is making something that matters to someone.

By this time, we’d realized that this connection could be far bigger than a single project. So we started planning for next time, which came in January 2021. We met with students virtually and went through some of the same basics, but this time we also took time to ask them some questions.

What does creativity mean to you?
Where do you consume content?
Do you feel there are any brands that understand or reflect things that you care about?
How valuable is it to talk about diversity, social issues or political issues at school or work?

If you’re at all familiar with the age-old “the student becomes the teacher” plot, you know where this story is headed. Every student in the room (or the Zoom, as it were) had incredibly valuable perspective to share with us. And we had so much to soak in and learn from them.

There’s only so much we can understand from our screens and data and tools. Different perspectives are perhaps the most valuable asset available to us in this industry, and the more we step out of the marketing bubble and into the world where our work and the people we’re speaking to live, the better we all are for it. That’s why our partnership with WHEELS has become a foundational part of our agency work and culture. And it’s why we continue to take on as many community-focused projects as possible.

So if you do get a chance to go back to high school, or to your local food bank, or wherever your passions or pro bono work may take you, take a beat to think beyond what you can give, and consider what you could gain. You never know — you might learn something.