The Top 40: Axis Healthcare Communications

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Axis Healthcare Communications CEO Neil Matheson has moved aggressively in recent years to address public perception of the pharmaceutical business. “Everybody is passionate about medicine and the industry, but you can only go so long hearing the criticism before you start to get jaded,” Matheson notes. “What I've been trying to do is make sure the people who work for me know that they work in a proud business that's worthy of respect. At the end of the day, these companies improve patients' lives and mostly do good.”

Matheson points to a recent Gallup Poll, in which the American public ranked the pharma business about even with the tobacco and oil industries in terms of mistrust. Such perceptions, he suggests, have been further reinforced by the uproar around Vioxx and subsequent legal wranglings. “There's just a general trust distaste for the pharmaceutical industry,” he says.
In response, Axis has coordinated health-education programs at local facilities, as well as an industry golf outing that raised $20,000 for aging research at its hometown Lincoln Medical Institute. Axis has also backed MANNA, an organization that provides home-cooked meals to chronically ill and homebound patients.

“They're small things, but they all contribute to improving positive communication about the industry,” Matheson says. “The perceptions are something I personally don't accept. I'm adamant that, as an industry, we have to set the record straight publicly.”

Of course, Axis remains very much a for-profit concern, and in that regard 2005 proved a fruitful time. The group—which includes advertising agency Trapezoid Healthcare Communications—remained static in terms of head count (roughly 260 full-timers), but gross income spiked to $67 million from $61.1 million. Additionally, Matheson says business is up 11 percent through the first five months of 2006.

Axis added work from a range of big-name clients in 2005. AstraZeneca tapped Axis for marketing help on Nexium, Crestor and Seroquel, while Novartis called on the company for projects around Famvir and Zometa. Other scores included Merck (Fosamax, Singulair), Schering-Plough (Peg-Intron, Hythiam) and Cephalon (Sparlon).

At the same time, Matheson stresses that 2005 was one of the most challenging years in the last decade or two. “There's a massive amount of change occurring,” he says. “The environment in which our clients are functioning is getting more and more restrictive in terms of the activities that are deemed appropriate, whether it's interaction with physicians or anything else.” Although Axis didn't lose or resign any clients during 2005, a smattering of pre-launch products did not survive through clinical trials.

In the months ahead, Matheson looks for continued growth from a handful of Axis companies, especially Helix Medical Communications (recently expanded into Europe) and Fusion Medical Education (currently growing at a 20 percent clip). He's equally bullish on the prospects of the company's Curatio CME Institute (“so many clients have increased their budget allocations for CME”) and Axiom Professional Health Learning.

Axis is also likely to expand via acquisition, especially of firms that directly target consumers. “I see the patient as being a major player in healthcare decision-making in the future—we're already headed in that direction,” Matheson says. He allows that a public relations shop ranks high on his shopping list.

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