GSW Worldwide

The images are remarkable: an eye-catching school of goldfish making their way through a sheet-white rendition of a patient's heart and blood vessels. Courtesy of the grand old medium of TV, those images — a central component in the memorable DTC campaign for Boehringer Ingelheim's atrial fibrillation drug Pradaxa — were beamed into living rooms everywhere. The agency behind it was GSW Worldwide, the inVentiv Health–owned shop that's been making hay on such bold and visually alluring work for years.

The success of the Pradaxa TV spot can be traced in no small part to the firm's two-year-old commitment to Speak People. Aiming to deliver simple, straightforward healthcare messages that are easy for patients and caregivers to digest, GSW is trying to redefine the existing model, which too often relies on overcomplicated verbiage.

Referring to the Pradaxa campaign, GSW-NY executive director Susan Perlbachs says, “There are no talking heads or complicated stories standing between patients and their ability to take control of their condition.”

GSW EVP and CCO Dave Sonderman likens the Speak People experiment — where a series of common brand experiences are expressed in a clinical setting — to a motivating and entertaining message intended for the healthcare-communications industry as a whole. To illustrate the power of clean language, a GSW team commandeered a coffee shop and subjected unsuspecting consumers to a long-winded explanation of caffeine's effects while they waited for their orders to be filled.

“We dramatized what happens when you lose the simplicity and authenticity of how you communicate,” Sonderman explains.

The faces of surprise, annoyance, and utter confusion on the other side of the coffee counter are evidence enough: Clearly, people want to be spoken to in a clear and concise manner about everything. Even pharmaceuticals.

While the Pradaxa and Speak People spots generated plenty of buzz for GSW, the company had plenty going on elsewhere. It scored 37 new brands or clients in 2015, driving revenue above the $100 million mark, and now counts 530 employees across its New York City, Columbus, Ohio, Newtown, Pennsylvania, Toronto, and Montreal locations. In addition to Pradaxa, other creative highlights included the launches of Lilly Oncology's Portrazza and Endo Pharmaceuticals' chronic pain medication Belbuca.

According to president Marci Piasecki, GSW is reaping the rewards of being part of inVentiv Health. Working with (and within) a single organization has gained favor with clients, she says, making GSW's access to sister inVentiv firms even more desirable. “It's funny how the pendulum swings,” she notes. “Clients want in-network collaboration more than ever.”

GSW has also invested heavily in virtual reality, thought by many to be the next frontier in health communications. The agency put the technology to work in the epilepsy space as part of a partnership with UCB called the Empathy Project. In it GSW enables HCPs to experience an epileptic seizure firsthand by joining Jane, an actress living with epilepsy, on her journey. In its wake, the hope is that HCPs will more strongly and sincerely empathize with epilepsy patients and make more-informed clinical decisions. The campaign debuted at the annual American Epilepsy Society get-together. “It was standing room only,” Sonderman recalls.

Indeed, GSW thrived as a content producer. The short-film series Whose Diabetes Do You Have? — developed for Eli Lilly's diabetes group — announced the company's devotion to the therapeutic space in a novel manner. This campaign, composed of first-person narratives in which physicians detail personal experiences with the disease, focuses on diabetes as a worldwide condition, one in which nearly every person knows a parent, coworker, or friend who is afflicted. Sonderman reports a tremendous response from the health­care community, which prompted Lilly to green-light the production of three additional spots.

As a complement to its client activity, GSW has long devoted time and resources to philanthropic efforts. In addition to prior work on behalf of the March of Dimes and Susan G. Komen, the agency recently contributed to a tongue-in-cheek project for the Movember Foundation, best known for prompting men to grow mustaches during November to raise awareness of prostate cancer. GSW teamed up with technology firm LiveTiles to create a “Sexy Men of Technology” calendar, sales of which generated funds in support of the Movember initiative.

“The calendar makes a lot of noise around men's health, which is the connection for us,” Piasecki says. “It's funny and factual and has been a tremendous amount of fun.” To celebrate the partnership, the Movember Foundation founders invited GSW to Wall Street to ring the Nasdaq Stock Market closing bell.

On the personnel and organizational fronts, some key players joined the GSW ranks, while others shuffled to new roles. VP of human resources Molly Harr, who joined the agency last year, gets rave reviews from Piasecki. “Molly is taking development, training, goal setting, and career planning to new levels,” she says. “These areas are important to the millennials on our staff, in particular.”

Michelle Casciola, most recently with Discovery Health, joined the Newtown office as SVP, group creative director, while former McCann Health exec Wendy Levine was hired as EVP, director of client services, a post based in the New York City office. Meanwhile, Adam Bergman returned as SVP, director of technology. “It's the perfect opportunity for Adam to step into a leadership role in his sweet spot, but one that also stretches his abilities,” Sonderman notes. As for Leigh Householder, recently promoted to chief innovation officer, Piasecki describes her primary charge as “embedding and integrating innovation across GSW.”

Indeed, at GSW circa mid-2016, innovation is where it's at. In fact, it's the new digital. Piasecki believes innovation can happen anywhere and anytime, as it often does. “We see it with our procurement counterparts, as well as in the innovative ways we structure our contracts and efficiency models,” she says.

As programs that exist primarily or partially in the digital realm continue to multiply, Sonderman says there's been a simultaneous shift in approach: “It's no longer about, ‘Can we do it?' Instead, it's about how good the digital story can be.”

To Sonderman, in other words, technology is simply an enabler for the story. In 2016, GSW will continue to have an abundance of stories to tell.