Abby Allen ’97: Helping Brands Reflect Our World

Ask Abby Allen ’97 who the lead of the 1987 Dwight play was and she’ll probably get it right, even though she didn’t go to School here until quite a few years later.

She might also know who the captain of the 1988 JV Basketball Team was ... or be able to tell you the name of the senior class president. “For a long time while I was in school, I was obsessed with studying old yearbooks,” she confesses, illuminating the source of her extensive Dwightonian knowledge. “I’ve always been fascinated by people and exploring why they do what they do — uncovering what makes them tick — and Dwight to me was an endless amalgam of interesting characters to draw from.”

In her own senior yearbook, Abby was voted: most athletic, alongside Dwight Smith; teacher’s pet, together with Simon Pfister; and most likely to work at Dwight with Cedric Wallerson! 

When Abby, founder of Neon Butterfly, a full-service brand strategy and marketing firm dedicated to helping companies reach diverse audiences, first stepped foot inside the red doors of Dwight’s former home on East 67th Street as a seventh grader, she immediately felt inspired and excited. 

Multiple Perspectives
Abby’s favorite teacher was Arthur Samuels, who taught IB History and encouraged her and her classmates to think for themselves and develop their analytical skills by introducing them to historical perspectives not taught in most high schools. He posed many thought-provoking questions like, “Why did the U.S. actually conduct so many excursions in Latin America?” and “Did the U.S. government know in advance about the attack on Pearl Harbor?” Abby, a self-professed nonconformist, appreciated the encouragement to formulate her own opinions about topics that had always been taught from one perspective and as incontestable facts. “Mr. Samuels didn’t present the facts in the whitewashed way many teachers do,” she says. “I remember reading A People’s History of America in his class and thinking how cool it was that we were reading a more nuanced and complete type of history text.”

Other teachers, like Allison McCallister who taught IB English, continued to encourage Abby’s critical thinking skills. Upon reading Lord of the Flies, for instance, the class would engage in lively discussions about whether or not they would have acted the same way as the novel’s characters did. Teachers like Arthur Samuels and Allison McCallister also created rigorous reading lists with writers like Alan Brinkley, whom Abby would later have as a professor at Columbia University. In this sense, she felt she’d already enjoyed a rigorous collegiate experience before receiving her high school diploma.

Abby was part of Dwight’s academic evolution, when it joined forces with the Anglo-American School to become a full IB school in 1993. With that came Dwight’s move from the East Side to the West Side, along with the subsequent expansion of the student and faculty bodies. Sitting in class alongside students from other parts of the world, learning about their cultural differences and similarities, Abby describes this individual and collective growth as invigorating: “I felt integrated into Dwight’s journey of evolving into an altogether more formidable school.”

Top-notch Achievements
As she began high school, Abby joined the snowboarding club and continued playing volleyball, “which was a big part of what made Dwight great for me,” she recalls fondly. As Abby’s skills as a player grew, so did the team’s ranking until eventually Dwight was outplaying some of the bigger rival schools, including Riverdale and Horace Mann. For two years, she served as captain, helping to lead the team to multiple championships. 

“At Dwight, I was able to exercise the many facets of my own personality and interests,” Abby shares. ”I was academic. I was also athletic. I was also somewhat of a thespian at times. It was great that I didn’t feel like I had to just stay in one lane.”

When she received her Dwight diploma in 1997, it was at the top of her class. Abby graduated as Valedictorian, alongside her best friend and Salutatorian Jessica Schnur.  She didn’t travel far, venturing further uptown to attend Columbia University, where she majored in American History and also played on Columbia’s Division One Volleyball team, continuing both her academic and athletic success — dual sparks of genius. 

“How can I ultimately use media to do good?” 
Tapping into her fascination with why people do what they do, Abby began a 20-year career in advertising and marketing after graduating from Columbia. She joined the British multinational communications conglomerate Saatchi and Saatchi, followed by stints at other ad agency giants like J. Walter Thompson, TBWA Chiat Day, and Publicis. Abby explains that, along with her passion for studying human motivation and behavior, the common thread throughout her successful career has been the underlying question, “How can I ultimately use media to do good?” 

“I’ve never been someone who can be happy just sitting around in third gear, collecting a paycheck, which is often what can happen in the corporate world. Being complacent has never been a possibility,” she says. “My motivation was to learn, learn, learn, so that I could eventually figure out how to use media to truly benefit others.”

As Abby rose through the ranks, working with brands ranging from Olay to Twitter, she became an earnest student of Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, spending thousands of hours studying a traditional Tibetan monastic curriculum, as well as in training and silent retreats. Her desire to serve others began to merge with her talent and expertise in the advertising world, when she offered to rebrand her Yoga teacher’s training program, leading to the rapid expansion of the program’s enrollment. 

“Everything I do is part of my own spiritual practice and growth,” Abby shares. “I am always working to try and be a better version of myself so I can be part of the solution instead of the problem.” With this in mind, Abby has lived in many different places, from New York to Los Angeles and Boulder, with the intention of continually learning from new environments and different kinds of people. Most recently, she relocated to the swing state of Ohio before the upcoming election, so that she could live in a state where her vote counts.
 
One Size Does Not Fit All
Savoring the joy of helping others, in 2011 Abby started her own company, Neon Butterfly, with the focus on helping companies more successfully reflect and reach their global audiences. 

“I came to realize that not only were ad agencies running really inefficiently, but most of the work coming out of these big shops was being created solely by white men. There was such little diversity of any kind — perspective, race, culture, etc., especially in the more senior positions. That just felt increasingly absurd to me given the way the world actually is,” Abby explains. “I decided to lean into curating creative teams that actually reflect the audiences that brands and organizations are trying to reach. It just makes sense for business and beyond. It does require a lot more effort because it means painstakingly assembling new teams for every project — but our teams have fewer blind spots and we can create work that more accurately represents the world we live in, which benefits everyone.” 

On the Neon Butterfly website, prospective clients read: “Our mission is to help brands connect with the changing face of America, and the world, in the changing spaces where people communicate — fusing human insight with rigorous business acumen built from nearly two decades of industry experience.”

With clients like mega-brands Disney and Proctor and Gamble, along with personal brands, ranging from psychotherapists to a Congressional candidate, Neon Butterfly has garnered the attention of top players in its field. Along with that, Abby recently experienced the very surreal moment of hiring the woman who was her first boss at Saatchi and Saatchi to join her team.

Similarly, Abby might soon be returning to her alma mater to help contribute to our School’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Some might call this a full swing around the Dwight karmic circle, lending credence to the 1997 yearbook prediction that Abby “was most likely to work at Dwight.” Here, it comes down to a mere change in preposition, from “at” to “with!”

While Abby is currently based in Cincinnati, who knows, following the election, where this butterfly will land next?