The Atlas (Back) Story

I came into the office late that day. I had recently returned from maternity leave and today I had brought in the new baby for everyone to meet. As I moved through the small network of cubicles toward my desk, a growing murmur of surprise and excitement filled the floor.

Josephine was our trainer from New York. She was in town for a training summit taking place that week. I didn’t have to ask what was going on. She saw the question in my face and proudly exclaimed that Microsoft just announced the acquisition of our employer.

“No way!” I exclaimed. She responded by turning to her laptop and pulling up one of the many stories headlining local and national news that morning. It was true and it was a big deal.

Google had recently announced the acquisition of our competitor, DoubleClick, a competitor we hadn’t quite yet surpassed in market share (though we were close). Microsoft had agreed to pay a price that was double what Google had offered DoubleClick. At the time it was Microsoft’s most expensive acquisition ever. Bigger acquisitions had been made in terms of company size and complexity, but they had never paid this much. If Microsoft was going to compete with Google in the digital ad management space, they would need the only other ad tech service owning nearly as much market share as DoubleClick.

Driven by Donut Wednesdays, Bagel Mondays, First Thursday social gatherings, and Kegerator parties, Atlas was the tech leg of the acquisition. The Atlas ad serving platform emerged from sister company, Avenue A. The technical offering carried the ad agency through the tech bubble of 2000 and the follow-up bubble of 2002. When Sam Richardson did the worm once around the office after hitting one trillion ads served in 2006, Atlas was already well on its way to being one of the two ad serving companies that combined owned around 90% of the market share.

Of course there was a big party that night to celebrate the acquisition. I couldn’t make it because I had to get the baby home. A few weeks later we were invited to the Microsoft company meeting. It was held at Safeco Field where the Seattle Mariners played. Where else are you going to hold 50,000 employees? aQuantive employees were honored guests seated front and center at the massive venue.

We didn’t have to return to work after the big event, but a few of us filtered back into the nearby facility to drop off newly acquired Microsoft gear and pick up personal items to take home. My good friend and colleague, Tamara, was with me.

“This is so exciting!” I commented. “We’ll finally be able to get headcount and resources we’ll need to do everything we’ve been wanting to with the learning team.” Tamara hesitated.

“Maybe.” Then she handed me a book. It was about corporate mergers. It described the different kind of mergers and the typical outcomes of such unions. “That’s what I thought the last time I worked for a company that was acquired.”

I read the book. The overshadowing message was that layoffs will happen. I wasn’t concerned and I didn’t see any signs of such an ominous outcome. I was so naive.

Razorfish (previously Avenue A) acquired as part of the aQuantive deal was sold to agency giant, Publicis, almost right away. Less than two years after the aQuantive acquisition, Microsoft laid off more than 5,000 employees company-wide. Our corporate training team was dropped. A few years later, the remaining shell of Atlas was sold to Facebook. And just last year (2016), Facebook announced the death of the Atlas platform.

In a year that lost some of pop culture’s greatest icons like David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, George Michael, and Carrie Fisher, perhaps it’s fitting to have lost a superstar ad tech company that played a very big role in using corporate advertising budgets to fund the content-rich media you find for free on the Internet today.

But aQuantive lives on.

Today, August 10, 2017, marks the 10 year anniversary for the day the Microsoft acquisition came to a close. Last February, former aQuantive employees came together for a small reunion in Seattle, as they have done through the years and will continue to do so. The group will continue to celebrate the phenomenon that was aQuantive for as long as at least one person is willing to organize it. Someone has always stepped up to the plate. They stepped up to do the work needed to build a great company, and they are still building great teams and businesses to this day as they disperse throughout the corporate world.

I just ran into Saar Safra last month (July 2017), once CTO of Israel-Based rich-media tech company ad4ever that aQuantive purchased in 2004. Saar had moved to Seattle to support and build the acquired technology, key at the time for managing higher quality ad campaigns. He was always innovative with a “just get it done” way of doing things. Today Saar and former aQuantive superstar, Scott Case, co-founded UpRise. analyzes political data to help voters target their energy and resources toward action that will have the greatest impact. Scott Case is also COO at EnergySavvy, a technical platform for managing utility relationships with their customers.

Brian Nash is founder of TunersCare, a charity that donates to children’s charities using proceeds from the sales of car parts and now children’s books about characterized cars who face life’s challenges. Brian currently organizes regular meet-ups with former aQuantive superstars.

Product manager Steve Sullivan went on to be VP of Technology at the IAB where he played a role in standardizing technology used to serve, count, and validate digital advertising while raising the bar of integrity in the industry. I worked with Steve, the IAB staff, and its members to draft many of the specs, guidelines, and a few tutorials.

aQuantive co-founder, Mike Galgon is currently managing director at Pioneer Square Labs, a Seattle-based studio for turning ideas into start-ups.

Karl Siebrecht, former president of Atlas, is one of three co-founders for Flexe, an innovative warehouse-sharing solutions provider. Karl is also one of the co-founding board members at EnergySavvy along with Scott Case.

These are just a few people who carry on the aQuantive legacy as they move on to change the world in whatever work they do. I could go on forever telling you about the people of aQuative and their change-the-world mindset, but if you read stories about how Microsoft wrote off the cost of the acquisition as a loss in 2012, or Facebook’s announcement of the death of the Atlas ad-serving platform in 2016, you might think aQuantive was a failed company. You wouldn’t know just how unique and special the aQuantive family was or how it lives on under the radar in today’s corporate America and beyond. You wouldn’t know just how successful it really was at finding and growing passionate people.

The backstory on the culture, history, and technology of aQuantive fueled the growth of a great company and the professional development of its people. It carries on the company’s legacy in the stories that people inside and outside the company continue to tell.

Finding the backstory behind your projects not only helps you to navigate the conflict toward success, it builds connections, enhances the corporate culture, and carries on a legacy beyond the life of the company.

What’s your corporate backstory?


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