2019 was another year of growth for agencies. And when the world turned upside down in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, agencies reached deep into technology and took themselves into the virtual realm.

By Chris Truelove, Contributing Editor, Med Ad News

As we gathered at Pier Sixty in New York City in 2019 for the 30th annual Manny Awards, we had no idea what was in store for us in year 31.

The last time I saw a lot of your happy smiling faces was the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame Award in February at the Pierre Hotel. It was a lovely evening where the healthcare advertising industry celebrated its past with three additions to the Hall of Fame, and honored its future, with a stage crowded with up-and-coming talent. 

At the very end of the night, at the cocktail reception, I got to catch up with Maureen Regan (formerly of Regan Campbell Ward) and we started talking about the (at that time) strange new virus ravaging Wuhan. The news had come out that day that Dr. Li Wenliang, who had sounded the early warning about SARS-COV2, had passed from the disease. 

Based on her past experience in dealing with Beijing government officials, Regan thought they were underreporting the extent of the situation in Wuhan. I had a feeling of unease in that conversation, that the world was about to irrevocably change. 

Now here we are, and as I write this it’s more than three months later. What day is it again?

As we all are working from home right now, we can all empathize about the nonstop hand washing, the living eternally in sweatpants, trying to remember when is the last time you took a shower, or gave someone a hug who was not in your immediate household. 

All of our meetings are on Zoom or Google Meet. We’re having virtual cocktail parties, brunches, and meals to socialize, and listening to live DJ music streams on Twitch and watching band performances on YouTube. And this year, in a first, we hosted the Manny Awards virtually as well. 

For parents, it’s not only worrying about your own work, but trying to cope with your children’s home-schooling assignments and do all the housework and other chores.

Perhaps you’ve even engaged in a new hobby, or picked up an old activity to find joy in again (maybe Fingerpaint’s Ed Mitzen could even write another book – see “A Q&A with Fingerpaint’s Ed Mitzen”  for information about his first one). 

But one thing has not changed for anyone working for a healthcare communications agency: keeping your clients happy and producing the work that they need, even as their needs have changed in the pandemic.

Working in the era of COVID-19

Many of the healthcare agencies in this special edition say they have continued to thrive even as fast-moving events caused them to go totally virtual. 

For BullsEye Healthcare, the pandemic has pushed the agency to go virtual after years of maintaining a brick-and-mortar address. “The tools for productive on-line, team collaboration – Skype, Zoom, Webex, etc. – have been improving constantly over the last few years so holding a meeting on-line has become easy and effective,” says Guy D. Dess, BullsEye’s co-founder and chief creative officer. 

Because the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to many clients rethinking the way in which they are doing business, agency principals believe that given the new mindset of maintaining social distancing, and taking other precautionary measures to limit the spread of the disease (such as wearing masks), in-person meetings have become, and will likely remain, less of a priority. BullsEye is well-equipped to continue serving its clients in the same capacity thanks to its engagement with cutting edge on-line platforms, its leaders say. 

Omnicom Health Group generated double-digit growth in 2019, according to Ed Wise, CEO of the group. “That’s incredible. And despite the pandemic, we are carrying some very positive momentum into 2020, as we continue to show growth across our group.”

“In terms of how we work, we’re used to forcing change on ourselves to evolve and stay ahead,” Wise says. “But I was humbled at how adaptable and resilient our people and our network are.” 

Now, with nearly all its global staff of 4,200 working from home, OHG agencies are “still innovating, still launching, still pitching, and in many cases still growing.” According to Wise, in just one week, OHG agencies “pivoted to helping clients around the world engage customers 100 percent virtually, driving real results for their important brands.”

Wise says, “Everything we’d been doing with some clients – multichannel, data-driven digital marketing, more personal ‘nonpersonal’ engagement, and connecting customer journeys – is now the only way to market for all clients.” 

Two Omnicom agencies, TBWA\WorldHealth and CDM were even able to effect leadership changes just as the stay-at-home orders began in mid-March. Sharon Callahan, formerly CEO of TBWA\WorldHealth, became CEO of CDM, and Robin Shapiro moved up as CEO of TBWA\WorldHealth. 

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, growth and productivity continue unimpeded at Arteric, according to the leadership team. “On March 12, we converted to a work-from-home company until the crisis ends,” Arteric management says. “We executed the business continuity plan that we put in place in 2013 and tested in the weeks leading up to the change. As a result, we were able to continue all of our operations – including support for a major product launch – without missing a beat. Our close-knit team pulled together and really leaned in to support each other and strengthen our culture. Our value system has been invaluable in helping us to pull together as a team while navigating this crisis.”

An emphasis on diversity and inclusion

As difficult as it may be to persevere in the world right now (I am writing this on May 30, keeping an anxious eye on my newsfeed as peaceful protests during the day turned into violence and looting at night). But many healthcare agencies are trying to create a better, more inclusive tomorrow. 

To show support for inclusion and commitment to a diverse workforce, Intouch Group created an Inclusion & Diversity group dedicated to promoting understanding acceptance. Management says the effort quickly delivered measurable results, increasing the number of underrepresented minority employees (race/ethnicity) by 16 percent, and the number of employees who disclose a disability by 40 percent. Intouch hosted intra-office panels on women, LGBTQIA, and disability in the workplace, plus cultural and educational events for Hispanic Heritage Month, Indian festival days, Pride Month, and Black History Month. In April 2019, Intouch was named the first-ever “Diversity & Inclusion Champion” by Med Ad News. In January 2020, Intouch became one of the first healthcare agencies to include preferred gender pronouns in employee email signatures.

Leaders at Centron note that citizenship starts within the walls of the agency itself. “We are proud to have built a culture of diversity that goes far beyond an all-women leadership team,” says Celine Vita, president of the agency. “This is important for attracting and retaining talent, our shared experience, and the unique perspective we bring as an agency. We have established a collective vision of how we work together and a commitment to achieving the ‘highest good’ for our clients, brands, and the communities they serve.”

HCB Health President Nancy Beesley says the culture of Austin, Texas, is reflected at the agency. “Diversity is the essence of our city – and thus a reflection of (and reflected in) the agency,” she says. “We’ve never had to be intentional to create diversity – it’s organic to us and for the people who choose HCB as their home. When we opened the Chicago and New Jersey offices, we took that same culture and brought it to both shops. I’m proud of the diverse group of people we have, but it didn’t require intention. It’s been who we are since we began.” (For more of Beesley’s thoughts on diversity in the agency world, see “A Q&A with Nancy Beesley of HCB Health.”)

CMI/Compas is certified by the National Minority Supplier Diversity Council as a minority-owned-and-operated business, enabling all Compas media spend to quality as Tier 1 diverse spend.