AbelsonTaylor president and CEO Dale Taylor seems slyly elated with the fact that his agency's geographic location, hundreds of miles from the advertising epicenter of Madison Avenue, also serves as one of several secret weapons in his agency's formidable arsenal.
“Chicago is not only an attractive place to live and work but once people come here, they tend to stay,” Taylor says. “Let's put it this way, we have 53 people on staff with the word director somewhere in their title. In the last six years, only one of them has left the agency. I don't think we would have that same kind of tenure were we in New York, where there are six or more big agencies within 10 miles, all looking for new staff.”
AbelsonTaylor currently employs approximately 350 people, all who helped the agency grow its business by a robust 17% in 2007, Taylor says. The outlook is even brighter for 2008, with business up by 21% as this article went to press.
In 2007, AbelsonTaylor added work for Amgen/ Wyeth's Enbrel; Astellas' Ambisome and Mycamine; Eisai's rufinamide and Zonegran and Vertex's Telapravir. Additionally, the agency won back business for TAP's Prevacid, after a two-year hiatus from working on the brand, along with the Prevacid follow-on compound TAK-390MR. (AbelsonTaylor handled Prevacid professional work from pre-launch, in 1994, until 2003, producing the iconic “Heals Tough” campaign for the drug. In 2004, TAP switched to GSW Worldwide. AbelsonTaylor regained the account in March 2007.)
The spike in new work called for the addition of 50 new staffers in 2007 and 35, so far, in 2008. A trickle down benefit of added personnel came when the agency relocated to new office digs in the heart of Chicago's Loop last July. “We are now in a space that we designed for ourselves, instead of our previous offices, which we expanded and expanded but which never really had a feeling of community,” Taylor explains.
Although logic might dictate that the task of attracting top talent to fill AbelsonTaylor's shiny new Midwestern offices has proven challenging, Taylor says the issue has never really been a problem. “We tend to grow a lot of our own staff,” he says. “A pretty large percentage of the account staff has come here directly out of college and has grown up working on our brands. We have people, right up to the senior level, who came here for their first job out of school.…We don't have a real active recruiting program. We mostly answer the phone. It has worked out for us very well.”
Taylor is also not shy in pointing out AbelsonTaylor's recent successes in areas that haven't traditionally been agency specialties.
“For example, our DTC practice is growing in leaps and bounds,” Taylor says. “We only decided to get involved in that a few years ago and now we have nine DTC brands. Some people work for years to get that many DTC brands and it feels like we just all of a sudden have them.”
A second area of rapid growth of has been the agency's work within the electronic medium. “Last year, we did 150 projects in interactive, electronic sales,” Taylor explains. “It is becoming an increasingly large portion of the business and one that's really grown from nowhere a few years ago. Sure, we have had an interactive group for a long time but only in the past few years has it blossomed. Currently we've got over 30 people devoted just to the interactive and electronic space.”
Another of AbelsonTaylor's perceived secret weapons is the agency's independence from a large holding company. “There are all sorts of advantages I see to that,” Taylor says. “I think from the standpoint of staff, the single biggest advantage is that when we lose accounts, and all agencies lose accounts, we don't automatically follow it with a layoff. If you are working within a network model and you have not made your quarterly earnings contributions, sometimes you'll have no choice but to lay people off. Since we don't have a quarterly we have to pay to anybody, it is a lot easier for us to say ‘we'll hang on and pitch a little harder and replace that business.'”
Taylor is hesitant to point to specific challenges his agency faces but does acknowledge that AbelsonTaylor operates in an evolving marketplace.
“Some of the shifts happening are unfortunate,” he explains. “I think the shift away from the medical journal as a promotional device is a mistake.”
According to Taylor, medical journal advertising is still one of the most cost-effective ways of building a brand's position.
“Not because it has a revenue impact on us but because it is the right thing for our brands,” he says.
Meanwhile, sales reps being continually squeezed for time and access will only further add to marketplace woes, Taylor says. “It's important that agencies work as hard as they can to make the sales interaction as rich and deep for the physician as possible. That's one of the reasons we are getting so deeply involved in electronic sales aids,” he adds. “A sales aid that allows for a physician to identify a particular need and then see data to support that information in an engaging, interactive way means more time spent with that physician.”
As regulatory scrutiny grows in intensity, pharma marketers are becoming more aware of what they say and how they say it, Taylor notes.
“Many products have certain dangers inherent in them and we have to be careful that (manufacturers) are being responsible. If we are not, we are getting called out for it.” And further external challenges from government or regulators could hinge on the outcome of November's presidential election. Despite this, Taylor and his agency colleagues maintain confidence that there will always be a need to communicate legitimate product messages to legitimate targets.
“The future is not going to look all that different than it does today,” he says. “We will be using different media and we will be using the sales force more rationally.” Taylor's long-term future plans involve growth in the DTC arena. “That's an area that presents real opportunities for us and relatively few conflicts. There's a real opportunity for our staff to exercise their creative muscles in new ways to new audiences and in new media.”
Taylor also hopes the future sees more people come into equity position with the agency.
“That's going to be an important part of our growth,” he says. “We just went from a sole proprietorship a few years ago to a point where a portion of the staff have control of it…We may be the only agency in the industry that has a really well-defined position. We have got a position of being recognized as very creative. We will continue to try to earn it. We are not going to try to be something else because we are perfectly happy to be the most creative agency in the industry and it's hard work to keep that up. We will continue to focus our resources on continuing to maintain that reputation.”
Acting accordingly may prove to be AbelsonTaylor's greatest secret weapon of all.