Steven Michaelson, Calcium

Calcium’s Steven Michaelson on retirement, the pharma industry, and what’s next

After announcing earlier this week that he would be retiring, Steven Michaelson, founder and chairman of Calcium + Company and a Med Ad News Editorial Advisory Board member sat down with us to reflect on his time in the industry and what he thinks he’ll be up to next. 

Med Ad News: How has the pharmaceutical industry changed since you started working in pharma advertising?

Steven Michaelson: I think that what the pharmaceutical industry could do better is the same thing that they weren’t doing well when I got into the business in 1990. People continue to look at pharmaceutical companies the same way they look at the tobacco or oil industries — like these big, bad guys, and they’ve lost track of the fact that this business is saving lives. [For example], we can now control cardiovascular events and have brought cardiovascular deaths down. Today you don’t hear about someone dying of a heart attack as often; but 40 years ago if someone had a heart attack and they lived, you’d say, “how did they live? That’s incredible.” And that has a lot to do with the medicines and therapies available today in the cardiovascular arena. Now the industry has moved from cardiovascular to oncology, and is tackling AIDs and HIV. We are helping people live with HIV; they’re not dying today. With oncology it’s the same thing – people are living longer and fighting [the disease].

We continue to make strides, but the public perception of our industry is so poor. What other industry can say that?

As an industry, both the pharmaceutical companies as well as the advertising agencies, we really need to do a campaign that touts what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and the good that we’ve done. And it’s been hard to come together to do that.

Med Ad News: What would you consider your most significant accomplishment?

Michaelson: That’s a simple answer: I never expected that as this dyslexic kid from Newark, NJ, I’d be standing in front of hundreds of people winning awards and having businesses, being successful, and getting great smart people to follow me. I never expected that to happen. I’m always amazed by it and grateful for it. Same with the awards we’ve won and the creative [we’ve produced].

But the thing I’m most proud of is that we built these two agencies and within these agencies, people have met, fallen in love, gotten married, and had children. If it wasn’t for us making a place for them to come together and work, that wouldn’t have happened. These little children wouldn’t be walking around today. I think that is really the coolest thing.

Med Ad News: What’s been your favorite part about working in this business?

Michaelson: I think this is not just true for in business but in life; it’s that “a-ha” moment when you solve the puzzle and figure it out. That could be from a staffing standpoint, from a project standpoint, getting to the right target audience and motivating them, or from a positioning standpoint and messaging, or coming up with a great piece of creative, and doing it in a group and inspiring someone else to find that answer.

Med Ad News: What will you miss the most?

Michaelson: Almost everything. The collaboration is probably what I’ll miss the most.

Med Ad News: What’s next?

Michaelson: I’m currently on the advisory board for Haven Kids Rock, which is part of the Mott Haven Academy Charter School in the Bronx, which is a great program. I am a major donor for the USTA Foundation and I’m hoping to work as a board member.

I’m going to try to relax a bit. Maybe I’ll join a couple more boards. You know, the idea of retiring — they need to come up with a better word for retirement. It’s not that you stop working, it’s that you stop working to support yourself. But everything you do, whether you’re a painter or a writer, or even an architect – you’re still going to be doing something.

I will take on the Emeritus title at Calcium as founder, chairman, and CEO. I will have my Calcium email forever. And I’m sure the agency will continue to involve me in certain things, but I’ll be pretty hands off…but you never know.