Grais, Shepansky and Staples leave Rethink—as independent as ever

After 21 years, the three Rethink founders are formally stepping away from day-to-day operations of the agency they built after completing an ownership restructuring intended to “ensure the agency stays independent forever.”

Tom Shepansky, Chris Staples and Ian Grais have converted Rethink from a corporation to a limited partnership. The three will hold shares in trust, and sit on the agency’s board of trustees, but daily operations will shift to a five-person leadership team: Leia Rogers, managing partner, executive creative director in Vancouver; Alex Lefebvre, managing partner, business in Montreal and, in Toronto, Aaron Starkman, managing partner, chief creative officer; Sean McDonald, managing partner, chief strategy officer, and Caleb Goodman, managing partner, chief operating officer.

The news marks a significant changing of the guard at Rethink, with three big names effectively exiting the industry. But it is also largely symbolic, with Thursday’s announcement the culmination of a succession plan nearly two years in the making, said Shepansky.

The three founders have increasingly stepped back from daily operations and decision-making over the last couple of years, giving more responsibility to the five-person team now officially taking their place. “We’ve had a chance to mentor and coach,” said Shepansky. “We’ve tried really hard—as a Canadian, I’ll use the bad analogy—to get off the ice and to get behind the bench. Look at what people are doing and give them feedback.”

That long succession plan was intended so that the official departure of the founders would be largely a formality, with no meaningful impact on the work or client relationships.

The agency also announced that Morgan Tierney in Vancouver, Mike Dubrick in Toronto and Nicolas Quintal in Montréal have all been promoted to managing partner, executive creative director, while Joel Holtby has been promoted to partner, creative director and head of art in Toronto. Creative director Dhaval Bhatt and group strategy director Stacy Ross have also been made partners, taking the agency’s total partner count to 21 across its three offices.

Shepansky, Grais and Staples left DDB to launch Rethink in 1999, and soon earned a reputation for being proudly Vancouver-based (it was a big deal when they opened in Toronto in 2010); consistently producing breakthrough creative work—a 21-year streak arguably unmatched in Canada—and for being fiercely independent.

Maintaining that independence was all-important to the founders as they prepared to exit the business, said Shepansky. They’ve had multiple opportunities to sell over the years, and could have done so now. But from day one, they vowed never to sell to a multinational, and to do so now would be “hypocritical,” he said.

Being independent affords the ability to stay true to your culture and values in ways that simply aren’t possible with a holding company, he said.

At the core of Rethink’s success has been a formula of people, product, profit, in that order, he said. First and foremost you have to hire and retain great people. “But inevitably, in a different structure with one of the big holding companies, on a quarter to quarter basis, the first question when they call isn’t always going to be how are the people doing? It will be ‘What’s the P&L look like?'”

The decision to go with this model was inspired by Dan Wieden, who similarly created a shares-in-trust model for Wieden + Kennedy specifically to ensure that it would maintain its independence, said Shepansky. “If you can run a business based on your beliefs and values, why can’t you exit a business with those same beliefs and values?” he said. “Chris [Staples] uses the golden goose analogy. We got a goose, don’t kill the goose. The goose still lays eggs.”

For the foreseeable future the three will maintain governance and oversight roles as trustees, though completely removed from the day-to-day operations.

“And then eventually, as we get paid out, we’ll exit stage left and there’ll be new trustees,” said Shepansky. “We’ll groom new trustees who can step into that role, and assume a trustee oversight governance role moving forward. We’re trying to create a sustainable structure that can live on, I would say, in perpetuity.”

David Brown