The Top 40: Wishbone/ITP

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After growing by a phenomenal 70% in 2004 and pulling in $9 million, Wishbone ITP's revenue increased again last year, to $11 million—despite the loss of 30% of its business when King Pharmaceuticals halted promotion of Sonata and when AstraZeneca reclaimed Zomig from MedPointe.

Last year was a year of “firsts” for the generalist agency that founding partner/CEO Steven Michaelson started as a project shop seven years ago. It was the first time Wishbone had lost business. It won its first billion-dollar drug (Abbott's Depakote for epilepsy, bipolar and migraines) and its first oncology product (Sigma-Tau's Matulane)—that Michaelson calls a “major first” because one of the agency's goals was to enter the oncology arena. Meanwhile, the launch of Reliant's Antara (a treatment to reduce triglycerides) was the agency's first product launch.
Wishbone's senior management team doubled from five to 10 last year, and the total headcount ending 2005 stood at 45 (it has since risen to 52). After the Sonata and Zomig business dried up, Wishbone's CFO began pushing Michaelson to reduce staff, but he refused.

“Being an independent agency, at the end of the day it's my money, and we can spend it the way I want to spend it,” Michaelson says. “I held onto everybody for about four months, and we won our next three pitches and didn't have to let anybody go. I'm very proud of it. We rolled the dice, and it was great.”

The three wins that helped offset the Sonata and Zomig losses came in from: MedPointe, which awarded the agency Astelin (for allergies), Optivar (eye drops for allergies) and its cough and cold franchise; Genzyme's Synvisc (osteoarthritis); and Dey LP's EpiPen. So far this year, the agency has landed the corporate advertising account for Integral PET Associates and Otsuka's Tolvaptan, a vasopressin receptor antagonist.

Michaelson considers employee retention and the Depakote win to be last year's biggest achievements. “To have Abbott give Depakote to a company that was 45 people big—to win that—was a major achievement,” he says. “The biggest, though, is being able to work through the loss of business and retain all of our employees, and come out up 20% because of it.”

As the agency grew, accumulating talent was a priority. The addition of Diana Freed, chief science officer, brought expertise in areas such as oncology, which helped land the Matulane business. A medical education company called Backbone was built around Freed and opened on April 1. Dr. James Christodoulou, a practicing cardiologist, joined as Backbone's medical director.

Michaelson says Wishbone has a very high pitch/win ratio, which he attributes to the fact that the firm never baits and switches. He adds that prospective clients are taken through a seven-step marketing process that most find “very refreshing.”

“The people who pitch are the people who work on the business,” Michaelson says. “We don't have to answer to anybody and we have high senior people working on the business. [The pitch team's] seconds try to take that business away, but that doesn't happen until the client tells us that I don't have to show up anymore. That's how we know it's time for people to move up.”
Michaelson expects Wishbone to show continued sustained growth in the coming year and to continue building in-house science strength.

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