The Top 50: Wishbone/ITP

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Wishbone/ITP founder and CEO Steven Michaelson describes his company as “a
big-agency experience without the big-agency bureaucracy.”

The firm is more top-heavy than most, with approximately 20% of its 55 staffers boasting senior-level experience. This means clients usually find a healthcare marketing vet sitting on the other side of the table.

The company further bulked up its top tier last year by bringing aboard Steve Hamburg as EVP/chief creative officer and Dr. James Christodoulou as medical director. “Dr. Chris” was seen as a particularly savvy hire, given the authority he lends to medical education division Backbone and his ties with medical facilities at Cornell and Columbia. “He’s a practicing cardiologist. He has great access to physicians in any therapeutic area,” Michaelson crows.

Wishbone also expanded its service breadth during late 2006 and early 2007, adding its first-ever DTC account (Barrier Therapeutics’ Vusion, for dermatitis). Michaelson breaks down the firm’s current business slate as 40% sales and promotion, 20% advertising, 10% medical education, 15% direct marketing, 10% interactive and 5% DTC. Wishbone grew its in-house multimedia department, which kept busy with a host of web projects as well as the DTC Vusion spot.

Still, Michaelson stresses, “at the end of the day, we’re a pharmaceutical marketing company. We go wherever that takes us. Whenever a client is happy with its outside vendor for PR or medical education or anything else, we can play very nicely in the sandbox with others.”

Key wins during the last 12 months include Otsuka America Pharmaceutical’s hyponatremia therapy tolvaptan, Genzyme’s Seprafilm and Auxilium Pharmaceutical’s hypogonadism treatment Testim. Michaelson also touts Dey’s asthma drug formoterol and the aforementioned Vusion. He attributes the Dey win to that company’s familiarity with Wishbone’s approach and top-heavy account teams, and the Vusion win in part to Hamburg’s longstanding relationship with Barrier.
“To use a cliché, these clients know that we’re going to try to hand them a tissue before they even know they’re about to sneeze,” Michaelson quips.

While any number of soon-to-be-acquired firms have asserted their independence right up until the moment that they were bought, Michaelson rattles off several reasons why such an arrangement wouldn’t work for Wishbone. He points to the firm’s response to the disappearance of a key account—Abbott Laboratories’ Depakote, which went off-patent—as a prime example.

“Even when that happened, we didn’t panic. We didn’t cut staffers. We didn’t cut costs. We didn’t have to answer to anybody else. It might have been very different if we were reporting numbers every quarter.”

Plans for the year ahead include further staffing up, and a continuation of the company’s cautious approach to growth. There’s a reason Wishbone won 80% of the clients it pitched, according to Michaelson: “We know our strengths. We generally don’t go after something unless we know we’re the right fit.”

Michaelson also hopes to build on what he perceives as Wishbone’s momentum in the marketplace. “We’ve grown up and become a brand,” Michaelson says. “That’s kind of cool.”

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