Life Is How you Handle It
Amanda: Martha Hiefield serves as CEO for the Americas of POSSIBLE, a worldwide marketing firm. Her goal is to optimize organizational strategies of the business while helping employees realize their best selves. She is dedicated to make us the best agency and the best place to work, and it’s evident in her work each day.
Martha is a graduate of Seattle Pacific University with a degree in human environmental science with an emphasis in business and marketing. She has a passion for helping kids in her community and among other things served on the board for the Rotary Boys and Girls Club for over 12 years. Her motto, “Life is 10% what happens and 90% how you handle it.” Martha, thanks for joining us today. Thank you.
Martha Hiefield: It’s great to be here or have you come here to me.
Amanda: Yes, it’s great to be here with you. The first time I ever came down to POSSIBLE and saw how things work, I got to be a fly on the wall of a little presentation about what POSSIBLE is all about and the way that they see marketing as a whole, and I was absolutely fascinated by it. Do you want to just give us a little bit of a taste of what that work is like?
Martha Hiefield: Our focus has been digital, so as a digital agency over 20-plus years really at the inception of when things started blossoming and thinking about not only advertising, which many think of print or out of home or TV spots … As you and I know, that has changed. Really it’s become more of the interactions day in and day out. That’s really been a core of what we’ve done is focused on creating experiences that keep a brand’s promise.
Thinking about our organizations we work with, our clients, what’s their promise to their customers. Every moment, whether it be through communications, through an experienced design, a site, a social experience, a app development … or through using an app, I should say, to a purchase. Those are all touch points that you can keep a brand promise or maybe break it.
When you think about over 4,000 interactions or advertisings a day that often we’re bombarded with, there’s a stat that said, I think, 90% of people with just one bad experience will actually cause them to turn away from and not work or want to support that brand.
That’s a big part of what we’re about with our clients is helping them understand their purpose, their promise, and make sure that every interaction and engagement with their customer works for them and using data and technology to do that too. Now, of course, 20 years later, we have so much more access to that to make it personal and relevant and understand what people care about to really move them.
Amanda: I love that you said keeping the promise because in this day and age of constant advertising and the political mess and all the things going on, I’m sure it can be easy to make false promises. It can be easy to advertise and say, “If we say this, people will click on it,” but you can’t say you’re going to deliver on a promise and then not keep it. How do you make that balance?
Martha Hiefield: I think for clients it’s really understanding what their purpose is, what their mission is, what their business goals are and how they measure that and then make sure that we can be an adviser, really a trusted partner and advisor to them to help. That could be anywhere from Microsoft launching a new product to a big telecommunication company here in market to Gates Foundation. Just thinking through all those is really where we play and partner with our clients.
At the same time, I think about it with our employees, what promise are we making to them that they can bring their whole self to work and be their best self here. I want them to grow personally and professionally. That’s a big part of what I talk about is how am I creating an environment for them to do their best work and what’s that promise to them. That’s really where I think both with our clients and their customers, but also with our own employees, how do we create something that allows them to do their best work?
Amanda: I can imagine that those two don’t always go hand in hand, that you may have a client asking for something that you’re not sure you can deliver ethically. I’m sure it works the other way too, that there’s a brand strategy that you know is going to hit it out of the park. But do you use up all your employees doing it? I’m guessing here that this must be kind of a daily dichotomy of, “How do I find that balance?”
Martha Hiefield: It is. I think with clients and now, again, with data, if there’s an important idea, they’ll often come to us with a brief, a specific ask. We’ve encouraged in all roles that ideas can come from anywhere. Taking a step back and thinking about … Put yourself in the client’s shoes, what keeps them up at night? What are their own KPIs, key performance indicators? Maybe even what’s their bonus based on.
If we understand that, we can answer their question and listen to them and at the same time maybe use data and find an interesting insight that can bring a new idea or spark a new idea. That could be creatively. It could be a strategic business idea or maybe just a new experience we want to help create that they can better engage with their customers.
It is a tricky … There’s that side of it and then also the side of what are the clients we work with, who are they, what do they stand for? There’s definitely been moments in time where we had to pause and ask ourselves, “Is this who we want to be associated with or do we support?” Not to say everybody has to believe the same thing because that doesn’t make a unique agency or perspectives. We really pride in a diverse group of individuals that feel included enough to, again, bring their whole self and their ideas to the table regardless of you or I might not believe the same thing. That’s okay, but that’s how we get to the best work.
Amanda: It’s fascinating to me thinking about how with all the research and all the data and all the concrete things you can get up and do every day, so much of what you do comes down to a new creative idea and creating an atmosphere of, “All right, everyone bring their ideas because we’re waiting for them, we’re counting on them.” How do you create that atmosphere? I know it’s very democratic around here. There’s no cubicles in sight. Lots of long tables and people in multiple workspaces, but just mentally and as a community, how do you create a space where everyone is primed for these creative ideas?
Martha Hiefield: It takes a lot of work and a conscious effort I would say every day. You’re right, no one has an office, myself included. We sit out in the open. I think what I personally love about that is you can go up to someone’s desk and ask what they’re working on or brainstorm an idea in the kitchen or we have spaces where people can go collaborate. Maybe they want an area upstairs called Z Bar or Z Lounge where it allows us to have our staff meetings, but also a place for people to go work and have one-on-ones.
We host industry events there and that often sparks many ideas. There’s industry events that we host, but also one of our art directors just volunteered and raised her hand and said, “I want to spark a creative community and get them together and host wine on a Thursday.” They have different topics and speakers that come in.
We’ve tried to create a culture of yes and, and I think that gets to the mindset and also who we hire. You need to be open, collaborative, transparent. Not only the physical space of what we’ve designed for people to feel creative … We have dogs in the office. I haven’t heard one bark yet. It’s a casual work environment, but we’ve also tried to create spaces for people to think and ideate, but also in who we hire and the mindset we want for people to come up with the best idea.
Amanda: To me a workplace where you can be your whole self and is open to so many ideas and all your creative juices flowing all the time, that sounds amazing, but I can imagine that that’s not what everyone wants. Some people want to put in their work and get their paycheck and go home and do their own thing and they don’t want to be stretched. They don’t want to bring their whole self to work.
Martha Hiefield: Right. That’s where I think, again, in who we hire, we really look to … I’ve even intentionally not used … For years, you’d hear a lot about culture fit and the importance of that with not only clients, but internally. It is a core part of what we do, our relationships and people. It’s our biggest asset to our clients. They hire us because of our people. When we know each other and have relationships, there’s trust. When there’s trust, we can do our best work. That’s an important, I think, component to what makes us unique.
For some, an agency or our agency, might not be the right fit and that’s okay, but I always try to look instead of culture fit, think about culture contribution or what is this person going to bring that we don’t already have? Maybe it’s a different perspective, how they were raised or people of color or with a disability. Those are all things that I think help make us better as individuals and bring a different perspective to the work and to life. That’s how we all learn and grow.
When we know each other and have relationships, there’s trust. When there’s trust, we can do our best work.
Amanda: Speaking of a unique perspective, let’s talk about yours and your career path. How did you get come from environmental science to one of the highest ranked women in the marketing sector?
Martha Hiefield: That’s a good question. A little bit of a luck and maybe hard work. When I went to SPU and studied, I actually originally was going to do fashion. Then that one chemistry class, I realized that’s not for me. I changed courses and then went into human environmental science, which I think since the degree has maybe evolved into something else, but it was really studying the individual in work, home and community and then an emphasis on business.
It taught me a lot, but I think one of the pivotal moments and one of my peak moments when I was able to study abroad in European quarter, we went to Italy, Germany, Austria and Greece and studied the arts and culture and language and architecture with 28 students, one professor for half of that time. Then another came in. I learned a lot about myself at that time.
There were no cell phones, so that probably dates me, but you had to figure out how to get around and when you don’t speak a language or even just get along with 28 students when you study during the day and then go experience culture. And I loved … I learned a lot about myself I think in the confidence to figure things out when there’s a little bit of the unknown. There was definitely a level of curiosity about learning with people and putting yourself in their shoes or a different perspective.
I think that’s helped carry me through my whole career. The through line has been relationships, whether it be managing project teams, managing clients, managing an office or leading an office or a region to even focusing on talent and people development. That through line has been relationships, and I care deeply. I come from a family of a teacher and my dad was a pastor, and so there’s definitely a level of service and empathy. That’s one of the things that’s defined who I am today and I think how I approach leadership in service to others.
Amanda: In a previous conversation we had, we talked about mentorship and how I think most people see mentorship as a very specific relationship and it’s over a certain period of time and lunches and helping with a career or something like that, but you have a unique perspective on that word. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Martha Hiefield: Yes. It’s something that I’ve even a mutual benefit of when I’ve … And currently, I think there’s at least five or six women I’m mentoring. We do get together once a quarter and over coffee or lunch and they’ll often come with a question or we’ll brainstorm ideas or what’s next for them.
I love that. I get just as much out of it as they do. I think there can be a mutual mentorship or benefit. I personally heard … And I love the concept of a board of advisors, encourage people to think about who are their allies to help get them to their next step. Maybe they do need someone that in that particular industry or expertise. Maybe there’s someone that’s more networked or maybe they need someone that is a cheerleader and a coach or just to pick them up when they’re having a hard time.
Martha Hiefield: I’ve personally tried to be that for whoever’s asked me to and be available and accessible and approachable. At the same time I think that’s my view is that regardless of your experience or age, we all can be mentors in a really unique way if you’re just open to it.
Amanda: I think you once said to me you mentor everyone you interact with, whether you like it or not. I really enjoy that idea because it can feel like pressure, but there’s such truth that’s just there whether you like it or not. I like the idea that this matters, so I might as well pay attention to it. Each little interaction, it does matter. I know for myself, and I think for most people, you think about things that people said to you that really changed your life and very few of those things … If you go back to that person and say, “You said this, it changed my life,” they almost never remember saying that.
Martha Hiefield: That’s so true, right.
Amanda: So much of it is just being who you are and bringing, as you’re always saying, your whole self, your best self each day because you don’t know whose path you’re going to cross that today.
Martha Hiefield: That’s really true.
Amanda: What can feel like pressure I think can also be a really great reason to get up in the morning.
Martha Hiefield: Absolutely. One of my favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou who said, “It’s not what you say or what you did. It’s how you make them feel.” That’s something I’ve tried to really live day in and day out and be fully present. Of course there’s my moments where I pick up my cell phone or I’m distracted, but both practicing that daily and especially and even more now so with a daughter and my family, but also at work is like, “How do I be present and look for those opportunities that I can actually influence someone in a positive way?”
“How do I be present and look for those opportunities that I can actually influence someone in a positive way?”
Amanda: You mentioned your daughter and your family. You must not have a lot of free time between your job and your family, and yet I know that you have served in the past on the Boys and Girls Club board for 12 years or more among other things.
Martha Hiefield: Yes.
Amanda: Where does that come from? How do you find time to give back in even more ways?
Martha Hiefield: That’s a good question. Again, I think it takes prioritization. Again, I think I’ve always had a view of I want to be in service to others and how can I help? Even fresh out of college, I would actually go to Friends of Youth and stay the weekend. It was for basically girls that had a kid too young of age and needed to get back on track. I would basically check in Friday at 5:00 and sleep in the office but be on site, on premise for the whole weekend.
Even from that to East Side Baby Corner to volunteering even at our church, to Boys and Girls Club, I feel like I have a definitely a passion for youth and young women like, :How can we help them at an early age?” Because when we can do that, I think we might not need some of those other programs or things in life if we can actually influence them in a positive way early on. That’s been a passion of mine for sure on the side and just trying to prioritize time of how can I, through either time or resources, give back that is meaningful and impactful?
Amanda: If I might interject what I’m hearing.
Martha Hiefield: Yes.
Amanda: Giving other young women the experience you had of college and studying abroad of saying, “Here is some confidence, here is some empathy, here is a perspective you can take with you for the rest of your life,” it reminds me of a quote that Philip Jacobs said on a recent episode of the podcast, “You can only aspire to what you have been exposed to.” It reminds me of what you were saying about study abroad and the things that you learned earlier on to have perspective, to have confidence.
Martha Hiefield: When you can learn that earlier in life, it can carry you through. Like you said, it’s a lot harder when you’re a few more years down the road. I just thank you for, for giving back to the community in that way. It’s invaluable I think. That’s a great quote. I love that quote. In our industry, there’s the Cannes Lion Creative Festival, which comes right after the film, but there is a program that they started called See It Be It.
What I love about that is because we are trying to create a place for more women leaders or people of color or with neuro differences. Maybe unless you’ve experienced something, you just don’t know or how you were born and raised. I came from a privileged family in growing up, a very loving family, and at the same time I know I’m white female. Those are things that I do want to help create opportunities or try to give back in some way to say there’s a different approach to that or there’s a different mindset and so how can I help others have that same opportunity?
Amanda: I know you have a lot of experience being the first one in the room, I would imagine, sitting in board rooms where you’re the only female. I remember you told me a story once about being the only freshman on the varsity cheerleading squad in high school.
Martha Hiefield: I’ve told you that story?
Amanda: You did, and now I told everyone.
Martha Hiefield: Don’t judge me.
Amanda: I know you have a lot of experience being the first and the only and where does that confidence come from? How do you say, “I am different than everyone in the room and I am okay with that, and I’m okay to be who I am”?
Martha Hiefield: I think it’s taken probably many years of life and learning, or at least the second quarter of my life, to come to that realization, but I have always … Even previous mentors have said, “Just be yourself. Just show up. You don’t have to be the loudest in the room. Just to be who you are and be your real and show up.
There are times, yes, that I wish … Hindsight, I didn’t speak up and someone said something that I was thinking or, but you do try to show up and bring your ideas and be heard. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, whether it be you’re the youngest in the room or a female or whatever that might be, your circumstance, but you’re bringing a perspective that no one else can. And how do you … When you show up and be fully present, it does speak volumes.
Amanda: Absolutely. Absolutely it does. What’s next for you? What’s the ultimate dream?
Martha Hiefield: Retire In Cannon Beach, Oregon.
Amanda: I love Cannon Beach.
Martha Hiefield: Joking aside, I absolutely love what I do and who I work with and the work we do. At scale, we can actually impact thousands, millions of lives in meaningful ways. I think the next … As I’m on my next career journey … is defining what is that? We’re creating something right now actually in our broader, bigger agency called Wunderman Thompson For Good around purpose and social good.
Those are things that I’m personally really excited about and continue to help people develop and whatever that looks like. Those are some things that I’m thinking about, but also just ready for in that next challenge. I’ve reinvented myself several times and had a variety of roles in my career, but also the industry changes. I do love the industry we’re in and ability to make a big impact.
Amanda: We’re going to have to add one more dream to that. That’s that we get to fly a kite together in front of Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach.
Martha Hiefield: Yes, absolutely.
Amanda: It’s now in stone. It’s on tape, so it’s going to happen. All right, Martha, thank you so much. I know how busy you are and I know how much you have going on, but I really appreciate you sharing your insights. I truly believe that not just young women, but young people everywhere will hear from you and hear your story and hopefully get a little bit of that confidence to bring themselves to the table.
Martha Hiefield: Thank you.
Amanda: Thank you.