AbelsonTaylor's 2011 and 2012 are looking a lot like 2010, and this is a very, very good thing. The independent company, with 484 employees as of May 31, has continued on its path of explosive growth, seeing its headcount rise by 4.8% this year and by 14.6% in 2011. All that expansion needs someplace to go, and that means outwards.
Last year, the agency took on 7,200 square feet of space, but even tacking on an amount of square footage that is equal to about 21 New York studio apartments has not been enough.
“One of our biggest issues right now is space in our building. We have over three floors in this building and we're going to need to take on more,” President and CEO Dale Taylor said.
The growth is a combination of increasing its IT and adding creative muscle, with a greater emphasis on backend hires this year than last year, due to increasing digital business. Powering the rising headcount is a workload that had the health business clocking in at 10% more than the year before. Last year's total: 12 new accounts, seven without a pitch. This year's pace is equally brisk—Abelson has chalked up seven wins this year. Six of these recent wins also rolled in without a pitch.
SVP Jay Carter said although it may be an industry trend to get business based on past work, for AT it's pretty much become the norm. His explanation was a riff on the oft-quoted “you never get fired for hiring IBM.” The IBM-like halo has also expanded the type of work the agency does, and AT has taken on more broadcast work, in addition to expanding its digital reach.
But AT has been determined since the beginning that growth has to be measured. “Dale told me in complete seriousness right around 1997, ‘I'd be perfectly happy if we stop at 100 [employees],'” Carter said.
This means the agency has not been shy about turning away business.Taylor said simply scooping up work because it's there for the taking would violate two company goals: First, Carter and Taylor said it would tip the employee work-life balance in an unfavorable direction. Second, Taylor said that keeping up with a breakneck pace would dilute the quality of the agency's work, because it would mean “hiring every warm body you could find.” This, Taylor said, would not fly.
Refusing business could be considered risky, but Taylor said the agency turns down work without fear. “I think when we say no to more business, we sort of put our money where our mouth is in terms of telling our staff and our clients that we want to do the best work.
“The reason that we always give is that we just don't have the capacity to take on a pitch right now and still serve the needs of our clients,” he explained.
As for fallout: Taylor said spurned clients have been known to come back to see if AT had any free bandwidth. One even told Taylor, “I don't think I've ever called an agency and had them say no because they're too busy before… I like the fact that you said you were too busy to pitch.”
In fact, Taylor and Carter said they continue to grow because they want to give their employees the chance to really explore their careers. Although the agency's career track is not quite the mailroom-to-boardroom scenario, it comes close: Copywriters start as fact checkers/clinical researchers, designers begin in art production, and account managers usually get their start in traffic. And employees tend to stick around. Carter said grad school is usually the main reason employees leave. It doesn't mean promotions don't happen—123 AT-ers were promoted last year—but it does mean dramatic leadership changes don't happen very often. The agency made a creative director a VP earlier this year, but the last major shift was in 2010 when Carter split his job into two and Nancy Drescher became VP, director of client services. “Nancy just flat out does a better job at it,” Carter said.
The ground-up training is part of an overall ethic that Carter said continues to attract clients. Carter said it's also why clients have pulled some agency work and given it to AT, because AT knows how to navigate the FDA regulations. Carter said the reason is simple : “We get content through medical and regulatory.” He said anyone working for AT knows how to swing this, whereas “if you're a hot digital shop, the word content is a four-letter word.”
The new normal has made this skill set even more important. “It's becoming harder to find things to say, and our clients are becoming more risk averse,” Taylor said.
Knowing the acceptable messages is just one part of an effective campaign, and Taylor said clients are becoming more sensitive to a holistic view of the messaging conversation. He has seen clients handing them both DTC and DTP work. Taylor said the one-agency move is happening because clients are understanding that “messages need to be synchronized.” Taylor said their approach is to “put a question in the minds of a consumer or patient,” and to complement that with professional outreach that means “the only answer a doctor can give is your brand name.”
Despite digital hesitancy among its clients, the agency has seen the medium inch up in importance, accounting for as much as 20% of the agency business. Further, even though clients aren't necessarily ready to embrace digital, they want to know the skill set is present.
This means being prepared, not for the 70-year-olds who aren't looking up osteoporosis information on their smartphones, but the future 70-year-olds who can't remember life without the web.
To immerse employees in the space so they are as thoroughly schooled in digital outreach as they are in regulatory compliance, AT's strategy was simple: Set up a digital boot camp to bring everyone up to speed.
Carter noted that what's interesting about the digital space is how the focus on the new has overshadowed what's become standard, and why. “Web sites are old school now. Nobody talks about web sites, but that's where the revenue is. People use them” Carter said. Going along with established revenue creators, however, doesn't mean simply staying put.
Part of this includes developing platforms like its Electronic Visualization Engine, or eVE, which it rolled out last year. “We didn't really want to be in this business, but as we looked at the platforms that were available for doing electronic visual aids, none of them allowed us to be as engaging as we wanted to be,” Taylor explained. The iPad tech helps sales reps not just with presentations, but also collects data on the back end to create a constant stream of feedback.
Taylor said the launch of Sunovion's schizophrenia drug Latuda and the $1 billion sales mark for Vertex's hepatitis drug Incivek have been highlights for the past year. He also expects nothing less in the future. “This will be our 32nd year in business, and we've grown every year. We've never ended a year smaller than when we started it . . . We're going to have another great year, no doubt about that.”