The Top 60: Digitas Health

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Digitas Health is having fun as they break all the rules. CEO David Kramer says the agency has made a mission out of redefining what is thought of as direct-to-consumer communication. 

The result has been a new marketing medium—one the agency refers to as “direct for consumer communication” instead. According to EVP Larry Mickelberg, “The biggest challenge for Digitas Health is trying to undo 10 years of conventional DTC thinking. We don't work the way traditional agencies work. We start at a different place and we get to a different place.” 

Shouldering the burden of leadership in innovation has proved worthwhile for the agency and its clients. Digitas Health's revenues grew 50% last year as the agency brought in 15 new brand assignments. 
“The sheer weight of growing 50% has been an important challenge for us,” Kramer says. “When you have twice as much work to do, you have to figure out how to do it and do it profitably.” The agency predicts growth in the neighborhood of 30% for 2008, he adds. 

Digitas Health underwent a noticeable increase in the size and scale of its business versus just two years ago, when it operated as Medical Broadcasting Company (MBC).

In early 2007, the Philadelphia-based MBC introduced its new name, Digitas Health, to closer align itself with its parent agency, the Publicis-owned consumer digital firm Digitas, which purchased MBC in January 2006. Healthcare practices across all of Digitas' offices, which include locations in New York, Boston and Chicago, were unified under Digitas Health following the rebranding effort.

Digitas Health employs in excess of 100 people at its New York office and several others were working on Digitas Health projects in London and Chicago as this story went to press. 

“Our business and our flexibility have improved after opening up in other cities,” Kramer says. “We are taking advantage of Digitas' growing global footprint.” 

And by this fall, Digitas Health will move into an expanded Philadelphia headquarters, a few blocks away from its old home, to accommodate its expanding staff. 

“Our growth translates to employee growth of about 110% over the past 12 months,” Kramer says. “Our attrition rate in Philadelphia was 7% which is far under the typical average.”

The agency got a boost in recognition when it was cited by the Philadelphia Business Journal as one Philly's best places to work. Digitas Health was also recognized by CNN.com and CareerBuilder as having some of the best “work perks” in the country. 

2007, the first full year operating as Digitas Health, was the best year in the agency's history, Kramer says. “It's been very strong on every dimension,” he says. “We have incrementally earned work from existing clients and, from a business development standpoint, we have developed many new clients.”
One relationship that has been mutually beneficial is between Digitas Health and AstraZeneca. (It remains one of the industry's most poorly kept secrets that Digitas Health serves as agency of record for AstraZeneca's media business.)

Last fall, the agency developed an online project for AstraZeneca that generated scores of industry buzz.

A website, found at CelebrationChain.com, was developed around AstraZeneca's breast cancer treatment Arimidex, the leading hormonal breast cancer therapy with $292 million in retail sales (excluding prescriptions dispensed in hospitals) through July 2007, according to Versipan's Vector One. 

The branded site, invites women to create a virtual doll celebrating the life of someone they know that is living with breast cancer and send it on via email. It's a classic example of the promise of digital media to marketers—raising awareness of, and funds for, breast cancer through a creative, community-building endeavor while skirting the sore points of the medium and maintaining a level of control over content on the site. 

“User-generated content does not necessarily mean discussion,” says Michael Kaplan, director of media strategy at AstraZeneca. “Every single company is looking at how to explore and understand social media and how to leverage it in a smart, safe, responsible way. It's a nascent media channel and it's going to take everybody time to figure it out. Pharma is not alone in that challenge.”

Celebration Chain “was the first real instance of putting the social community in the pharma industry,” Kramer adds. “Not only is it a breakthrough on any number of levels. It's the best example of how thinking digitally and how bringing digital strategy to the forefront can actually make a marketer ahead of their time.…The notion that a company like ours has found a way to integrate these new media and the acquisition of these media into the offer is a really important thing. It's not just about doing great creative. It's about distributing content using those relationships to help measure and optimize what you are doing. As a consequence we are very proud of the search and online media departments we have built.”

Mickelberg says it's work like that done for Celebration Chain that lends itself to the agency's unofficial mantra of “guide, provide, and connect.” 

It “is sort of the way we think about how the agency works,” Mickelberg says. “Our philosophy is about guiding the insights and understanding and what people need in terms of information. We guide and provide all sorts of tools and then we connect them to each other and to other people like them and to our brands over time. It is equal parts acquisition, content and community. The idea of social networking has a huge play in healthcare marketing.”

For all of the great ideas born within the offices of Digitas Health, the era of procurement puts a lot of downward pressure on price, Digitas Health execs say.

“We accept that,” Kramer says, “but sometimes it's very difficult for creative people, who are selling innovation for a living, to operate in a procurement environment. I am not complaining about that, I am just saying if you really sit and think about those two things, they offset one another.”

Kramer and Mickelberg explain that Digitas Health is not afraid to ask its clients to be courageous enough to try something different.

“We ask our clients to step up and be committed to innovate in new ways because that's what we want them to do and that's what they need to do in this marketplace,” Mickelberg says. “We are stewarding pharmaceutical brands. That's what we do. We build and manage a brand surface over time—most of which are information and education based for consumers and professionals. We believe by building and managing that kind of enduring presence.” 

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