Ryan Abbate, 2017 MAHF inductee, sets the record straight
Illustration credit: A.E. Kieren
For years, pharma pundits have been laboring under an erroneous set of assumptions about the provenance of Pacific Communications, perhaps the industry's most highly regarded West Coast-based agency. Some execs still attribute the company's success to its relationship with Allergan, from which Pacific was spun off in 1993.
On the eve of the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame induction of Pacific's founder, Ryan Abbate, perhaps it's time to correct the record.
In the early 1990s, Abbate headed a small services group at Allergan. Its growth spurred the drugmaker to spin it off as a separate entity.
“There's still this idea that we were Allergan's in-house agency, which couldn't be more inaccurate,” Abbate explains. “We almost went out of business several times in that first 10 years, even with the link to Allergan. We lived and died by our ability to generate revenue. We had to make our way in the world just like anybody else.”
In fact, Abbate says the Allergan association could be a detriment at times.
“A lot of people thought we had some kind of advantage [when pitching Allergan], but it was the opposite,” he continues. “There was a higher bar for us than there was for the people we were competing with.”
Add the challenge of luring top healthcare marketers to the West Coast and, well, Pacific's origin story is quite a bit more complicated than previously thought. Much of the credit goes to Abbate, the rare agency leader admired as much for his warmth and decency as for his professional and creative moxie.
Arriving at that place took some time, he notes. Well before Pacific's founding, Abbate worked in pharma sales.
He landed at Lakeside Pharmaceuticals, a consumer-oriented division of Merrell Dow. “Many of us had very big jobs for our young ages, which was great and intimidating,” he says.
It was there that Abbate's star began to rise. With pharma DTC on the immediate horizon, Abbate's team — he points to product director Greg Westerbeck as one of the primary instigators — went all-in on the new tactic. In 1988, it produced the first FDA-endorsed DTC commercial for a pharma product, a spot for Nicorette.
The experience taught Abbate that creative, impactful work is possible even in and around the most restrictive regulatory environments. However, at Pacific, Abbate had culture-related headaches to tame along with the expected client ones.
Much earlier than most of his peers, Abbate recognized a digital-nondigital divide was forming. He remembers walking through the company's offices and noticing the differences between the adjacent print and digital studios. Right then, he set out to eliminate any such distinctions.
Pacific's push to weld the new to the old earned it a reputation as one of the few agencies that understood how to bridge the two worlds. Not surprisingly, Pacific grew by leaps and bounds, which created another situation for Abbate to defuse.
“How do I explain this and be diplomatic?” he says with a laugh. “At first it felt like we needed to be more like New York agencies culturally, but we hit a wall where we became a little too edgy. I didn't want people throwing shoes at each other and getting crazy.” His response? To “change agency management in some significant ways in a very short period of time.”
While Abbate politely declines to identify the companies and brands for which he believes Pacific did its smartest or most effective work, he acknowledges the huge role Allergan's Botox played in the agency's growth trajectory. He also believes the ongoing success of the Botox brand, with its wide range of indications, serves as an industry metaphor of sorts.
“Consumer people think we're doing a lesser form of creative work, but I'd argue it's the other way around,” Abbate explains. “Botox is an example of that. It's used for migraines and overactive bladders, and yet most people know it for its cosmetic indications. You could have a white coat doctor doing one ad for you and supermodels doing the other one. That's the business in a nutshell, isn't it?”