The Top 75: Digitas Health

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When even the most stodgy professional-side marketers are finally chanting online and interactive mantras, Digitas Health isn't basking in hard-earned digital laurels; it is expanding its traditional marketing capabilities. “We do as much TV work as we do Twitter work,” allows Michael du Toit, EVP, marketing. “And we're as respected by our clients for our traditional advertising skills as we are for our digital skills. For us, that's a major expansion as a lead agency.”

That doesn't mean the agency is slipping in the digital realm. Digitas Health grabbed the only gold Webby award among pharmaceutical brands for its Leading Ladies Perspectives work on AstraZeneca's Arimidex, a breast cancer drug, edging out Rapp's Gardasil website and Ogilvy Healthworld's Natrelle site, among others.

The Leading Ladies Perspectives site utilizes video-based user-generated content with “real women, and their real voices,” explains Alexandra von Plato, chief creative officer. “We let women speak in their own words, and allow those women to share their feelings and perspectives on how they are living with breast cancer, and moving their lives forward,” says von Plato, acknowledging that agency staff must screen content first to meet regulatory and legal issues. That the content on the site still comes off as authentic and useful is what makes it work, says von Plato. “That is really the trick for us, creatively.”

According to CEO David Kramer, between organic growth with existing clients (the agency's roster includes Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi and others) and new business wins, the agency picked up 14 new assignments this year, and is on track to grow at the same rate as last year: “in the 45% range,” says Kramer. There were no losses this year, according to du Toit.

Staff numbers ballooned to 570—up from 340 last year—as staff in Philadelphia transitioned into roomy new digs at the top of the Wanamaker building downtown last December. In the US, du Toit says clients are serviced by employees in Boston, working in space dedicated to the healthcare shop within parent Digitas' offices. The same goes for London and New York City locations.

Additionally, Kramer says the agency is looking to expand pan-Europe. “The consumption of health information in Europe is different, because there is no DTC material, but there is a layer of information, and healthcare providers are embracing these new media. Pharmaceutical companies are more interested in broadly global concepts, so we're beginning to expand our horizons there, and that's exciting,” he says.

Digitas Health's relationship with AstraZeneca has been a successful one, in that the latter has rewarded the former with new responsibilities, while maintaining a forward-leaning philosophy on new media adventures. “At AstraZeneca, we're the media AOR and the digital and RN AOR, so it's relatively easier for us to come up with a more comprehensive and holistic approach, which includes social media,” explains du Toit. “If you're only working on digital and social media, you have less credibility across the platform.” The agency holds an AOR assignment for consumer work on Crestor, AstraZeneca's near-blockbuster cholesterol drug, as well.

In February, Digitas Health partnered with Cadient to launch a branded YouTube channel for AstraZeneca's asthma drug Symbicort, an industry first. Titled “My Asthma Story,” the initiative included a companion website calling for testimonial videos, and a video blog (vlog) on the YouTube page. Although none of the videos have garnered more than 700 views when this story went to press—viewer ratings are disabled, with comments subject to prior approval—the effort is a rare example of industry testing the waters online in order to find out how best to engage consumers.

With Pulmicort Respules, another AstraZeneca asthma treatment, Digitas Health created Asthma Kid Care, a consumer program featuring active mothers of children with asthma, and then extended the program with Asthma Kid Care Pro, targeting nurse practitioners. “The idea of the user-centered design approach was canvassing for moms, and finding moms already engaged in active programs that had begun to self-manage,” says Larry Mickelberg, EVP, strategy and new business. “One of the people we brought to the fore was a blogger—Angry Asthma Mom, who wrote a very popular blog that had quite a following. So Angry Asthma Mom is one of the moms we co-opted into the process, and we took her following – the concerns of her listeners and her views on the digital landscape—and embedded them into the Pulmicort Respules brand experience.” Von Plato adds that it's important not to treat bloggers as marketing tools, but instead align messaging with the agenda of the blogger and her constituents. “When we feel like we're being pushed in a direction that is going to make the blogger or the community uncomfortable, then we're the first one to raise a red flag,” says von Plato.

As for clients leery of entering the social media sphere, Mickelberg says Digitas Health's job is to keep work relative to what the client is doing currently, and nudge them forward when it's appropriate. “Many agencies talk about change and what's next in terms of technology and digital and mobile, but they're yelling through a rather dense wall,” he says. “Being relative to what clients do today, and changing them from within, is what is really powerful as an agency.”

In addition to creating social media platforms, Mickelberg underscores the importance of listening to them. “When we say listening, we mean understanding the nature and tenor and volume of conversations in digital channels—on blogs, in social networks, in search queries,” says Mickelberg. “For some clients we open up ‘listening rooms' which aggregate twitter feeds, blog feeds, social media commentary and search data, and even capture imagery associated with certain clients' brands, in a real-time dashboard that our client teams use internally, and that we share with our clients on occasion as well.”

On the mobile front, Digitas Health created a professional campaign for Novo Nordisk called Diabetes in America, an “eLearning series” featuring podcasts, videos and articles doctors can download to iPods around the clock, according to von Plato. For a second client whom von Plato can't name, the agency used mobile media enabling consumers to send messages via cell phone to the JumboTron in Time Square.

As clients become more conscious of general economic pressures they start looking at efficiency plays, says du Toit. “Clients want to know how they can do more for the same money, and I think that's where we've created a lot of traction—the accountability of online digital media and the analytics that go with it have been instrumental in moving money away from less accountable media and/or channels, and into digital channels,” says du Toit.

“The challenge is when clients are coming out of mass media, and experimenting with digital channels —and that's all right, they should be doing that—but the challenge is how do you get scale without television?,” asks Mickelberg. “That is one of the most vexing questions for this agency, and I think that if we can address the issue of gaining the appropriate scale without television, it will be the game-changer in pharmaceutical marketing.”
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