Possible leaders confirm exit to unicorn

Shane Atchison, Possible CEO

Possible chief executive Shane Atchison has confirmed that he and Americas president Jason Burby will be exiting the agency. Both will be involved in a yet to be named, well-funded data-centric startup upon their departures — where Atchison will become chief marketing officer.

The news, that both will join this tech “unicorn," was first reported by Adweek.

Martha Hiefield will take reins as Americas CEO, a new position that was created, and Josh Schmiesing will be elevated to lead for the Microsoft business.

“I am delighted that Martha will be leading Possible in the USA across its offices in Seattle, Portland, LA, Denver, Cincinnati, Atlanta, New York and Costa Rica,” said Mark Read, global Wunderman CEO. “She has been an integral part of the Seattle agency and the Possible leadership team and will continue to champion the Possible brand and its culture.”

Possible will become part of the broader WPP-owned Wunderman network but, counter to reports and speculation, will retain its own name and remain a standalone brand within the Wunderman group.

The agency, that was founded as Zaaz around 20 years ago, was acquired by WPP in 2011 and has long had Microsoft as a key client and is continuing to deepen its work with Amazon. WPP recently acquired Marketplace Ignition, which is part of Possible and is focused on addressing Amazon’s increasing importance for marketers.

Additionally, underscoring Amazon’s importance, Possible and Mindshare entered into a partnership to help brands leverage media and e-commerce investments across the entirety of Amazon’s continually growing ecosystem.

Speaking to The Drum, Atchison noted that the move, countering speculation of discord, was not sparked by anything other than a rare opportunity that presented itself at the right time.

“I’ve always had a deep passion for technology and understanding the consumer with data at the heart of business strategy and businesses,” said Atchison. “To [get an opportunity to join] one of the most interesting big data companies with a great product to offer was too good to pass up.”

As for the Possible/Wunderman hookup, Atchison believes that there are a number of positives — especially for clients.

“The capabilities will be broader and deeper because of each coming together as one team,” he noted. “The other benefit is that the teams will be able to work on different, and larger, pieces of business. For Possible talent, especially specialty skills like our mobile business or our e-commerce business, they've got a bigger canvas to work on.”

Looking forward, Atchison is adamant that the Possible culture that he and his team have built far outweighs the perceived loss of leadership.

“We talk about culture as a collective group of minds, attitude and capabilities,” he noted. “The beautiful part about the founding of Possible and the name Possible is that it's not somebody's initials. And so the very design of this company and the design of the culture was for the team to be able to be effective, so if any one part of the team finds another opportunity in their personal lives or professional lives or both, we've got the respect and the love and the model to be able to adapt to that.”

The idea and power of the culture is already playing back as Atchison and Burby prepare for their last months at Possible — Atchison leaves at the end of the year while Burby departs in early September.

“I received a note from someone thanking us for building a culture of collaboration, respect and intelligence,” Atchison recalled. “[Our culture has] been our true north and I’ve never seen the way we care for culture in any other agency of scale. Indies, yes — but we’re proud of what we have built and handing over.”

To that end, Atchison is excited to see Hiefield move into the Americas CEO role.

“Martha was the first employee we hired when we started Zaaz and she’s been a partner with me, championing this company — and culture — the entire time,” said Atchison.

For her part, Hiefeld concurs with Atchison’s sense that it will be business-building as usual.

“I think from the way we run an agency, there's very much an entrepreneurial spirit in the way we work,” said Hiefeld. “We come up with new ideas constantly with clients, and then leverage that across different areas.”

Not lost in the conversation is the fact that Hiefield will be another highly-talented woman added to the ranks of senior industry leadership — a role that she has and will continue to embrace.

“I'm absolutely honored and proud for sure. I have a daughter who will be 12, and so I want to pave the way,” she said. “There is so much right now in the news and press around equality, and I've been a huge advocate of that for many years, both in sponsorship of the 3% Conference, in speaking, in moderating — it's my passion in that area. Additionally, how do we build a different kind of agency that has diverse people, that do feel included, and a sense of belonging that they can actually be their best self, themselves, and be real? When we do that and create an environment, I think that's when we get to the absolute, best ideas.”

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Doug Zanger

Doug Zanger is the Americas editor for The Drum. He leads the Americas editorial team’s content activity in the growing region. Based in Portland, Oregon, he is committed to sharing the most meaningful stories that benefit the global industry and its people. A Minnesota native, Zanger has covered a wide range of brands, issues and personalities, including Aloe Blacc, Seu Jorge, Wendy Clark, Susan Credle, Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby and more. Fiercely dedicated to diversity, equality and talent, he has interviewed several women in leadership roles through his Exceptional Women of the World podcast.

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