To say Harrison & Star (H&S) is on a roll is an understatement. In a year when most agencies were thrilled with modest revenue gains, H&S, an Omnicom agency, celebrated its seventh straight year of record revenue and profit growth. It also founded BioLumina, a new agency focused on specialty healthcare, in New York.
“From a growth perspective it made sense to have more than one footprint,” says chairman and CEO Larry Star. “We're not looking to change the basic strategy. BioLumnia gives us another opportunity in the marketplace because it runs completely independently—we don't share staff. We're not closed out of categories that we would be if we had only one agency.”
Total staff for both agencies is 310. Star is hiring, although “not a huge amount.” The new agency employs 60, many of whom moved from H&S. “Most people…liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor to help shape it and grow with it,” says Star.
Long-term H&S veterans Ane Jones and Alex Fishgoyt joined BioLumina as managing director and creative director, respectively. Diane Iler-Smith also joined as creative director from CommonHealth.
“It's always a challenge finding talent, though I can't say it's been a big hurdle,” explains Star. “A number of agencies had tough times in 2008, so people are available who in years past might not have been available.”
The client roster at H&S includes a lot of high science brands, and Star has been very successful recruiting medical directors with advanced degrees—in molecular biology, for example. He has found that some are dissatisfied working in labs and they're very often unaware that agency work can be a rewarding career opportunity. He says they make hires because they can communicate very in-depth, high-level understanding of science in ways that are relevant to physicians.
The agency is proactive in recruiting these candidates via booths at scientific meetings, referrals from employees already hired and social media sites, such as LinkedIn. Star says the agency has attracted a lot of resumes through social media.
“Social media is an example of tech disintermediating between the recruitment industry and companies,” says Star. “I can meet people that would've been impossible before.”
Key wins last year included Novartis, Roche and Schering-Plough.
The biggest challenge Star sees is continuing consolidation of pharma clients, which drives consolidation on the agency side. It creates instability in agency client relationships and can lead to situations where merit isn't the criteria by which an agency wins or loses business.
“Five years ago it was rare to see pharma companies approaching holding companies for a pitch,” says Star. “They go to Omnicom or WPP or Publicis to consolidate all their professional communications functions under one holding company roof because they're looking for cost reductions. That's certainly a different game than it was in the past.”
As sales forces are increasingly being denied access to physicians, Star says agencies are increasingly challenged to help ensure clients remain relevant to the medical community.
Though he thinks 2009 will be a tougher year than last, Star is still planning for growth. PR plans are in the works this year to help get the word out about BioLumnia.
“The whole game is getting tougher every year—or I'm getting older,” he says. “Or maybe both.”