ApotheCom | 2018

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At the start of a conversation about ApotheCom's recent fortunes and travails, global CEO Elaine Ferguson cheerily quips, “There's nothing worse than trying to dress up rubbish news.” Which is the first signal she doesn't have “rubbish news” to convey.

The science-minded firm had a fine 2017, with revenue surging 21.9% (from $34.2 million to $41.7 million) and staff size increasing by 10 people (to 210). The company elevated Matt Lewis to serve as its first global chief data and analytics officer (and, in turn, received its first pure analytics AOR assignment).

It added Ionis Pharmaceuticals to a client roster that includes mainstays such as Gilead Sciences, AstraZeneca, and Flexion Therapeutics.

Preaching the high-science gospel proved a smart decision for ApotheCom, with oncology and specialized-medicine clients now comprising more than half of its business mix. At the same time, Ferguson notes such assignments come with their share of challenges.

“You can't talk about the science without talking about the value and health economics parts of the story,” she explains. “What we do well is answer those why questions: ‘Why should people care about this new mechanism of action?' and ‘Why does this matter to me as a patient, provider, or payer?'”

apothecom agency

Ferguson notes agencies that swim in these waters face other challenges, mostly related to the difficulty of ushering a molecule through the developmental gauntlet. “About 50% of our work comes in the pre-launch phase, so it's a risky business,” she explains. “We just had a client discontinue an entire clinical program.” Ferguson doesn't identify the company in question, but it was likely Prothena, which in late April pulled the plug on a molecule designed to treat AL amyloidosis in the wake of a failed mid-stage trial.

ApotheCom has baked the possibility of such setbacks into its business model. “We go into every year assuming 15% to 20% of our business is at risk,” she continues. “Our base has been diversified and we're not heavily dependent on any single client”

Ferguson believes ApotheCom's evolution over the past half-decade has left it in fine shape to weather headaches of this nature. She notes the absence of “territory-specific managing directors” in the agency's hierarchy, which frees the people who might hold such titles to handle more than their share of client work. “They're not just being wheeled out when something goes wrong,” is how Ferguson puts it.

Look for ApotheCom to continue to assert itself in oncology and specialized medicine, likely with a tactical approach that increasingly taps VR, AR, and machine learning.
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