WPP Group, like most rival holding companies, is perfectly willing to acquire a big digital player like AKQA. But with Possible, WPP’s roll up of smaller digital shops, the parent is taking a different Lego-like approach, building a global network brick by brick.
Two years in, no one is ready to declare victory. But Possible, under CEO Shane Atchison, has taken small but significant steps in its bid to compete head-to-head with bigger, more established players like Publicis Groupe’s DigitasLBi.
Today, Possible employs 1,200 staffers in 26 offices; they came from eight different shops, including Schematic, Bridge Worldwide and Zaaz. Atchison, the former CEO of Zaaz, also has installed new leadership—including a Digitas alum and some familiar Zaaz hands—at several key offices. Additionally, the shop recently added assignments from Revlon, Starwood’s Baccarat hotel and Gorilla Glue to a core base of accounts that includes Smuckers, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft. (Possible also contributed to Grey’s winning pitch for P&G’s Gillette.)
“We are already competing with the likes of a Digitas or R/GA,” said Atchison. “I’m not finding that more scale is the priority. It’s more capability.”
Accordingly, Possible has added practices focused on marketing sciences, LinkedIn and content marketing, and across all its work, the company places a Zaaz-style focus on numbers-based insights.
“We’re hiring analysts and creative directors who care about research and vice versa. We want researchers and marketing scientists and data jocks that love creative,” Atchison said.
Possible’s emphasis on audience measurement and targeting puts it in line to compete with DigitasLBi, whose roots are in direct marketing and customer relationship management. Still, with 5,700 staffers in 40 offices, DigitasLBi is not only bigger but also more well-known, with longtime accounts such as American Express and General Motors. As such, Possible still feels like it’s punching above its weight.
With some exceptions, WPP, Publicis Groupe and Interpublic Group tend to let the digital shops that they acquire or build stand on their own, unattached to traditional agencies. In contrast, Omnicom Group generally pairs digital brands with the likes of TBWA and BBDO, even while those shops develop their digital skills. Omnicom also isn’t fond of big digital acquisitions. And while Omnicom’s approach differs, its digital chief remains bullish on the strategy. “We’re the fastest growing holding company by a significant margin, and a huge portion of our business is digital,” said Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Omnicom Digital. “So, what am I doing wrong?”
Despite Atchison’s progress in ship building—and praise from even rivals—Possible doesn’t yet strike fear in the hearts of its competition. As an executive at a Publicis Groupe shop put it, “When we compete against [AKQA], we worry.” And Possible? “Not yet.”