To hear Centron president Celine Vita tell it, the story of the agency’s 2019 begins back in 2017. She had arrived from CDM at the start of the year and assumed leadership of the agency by the end of it. While the firm’s business was healthy — it reported $21.6 million in 2016 revenue and a head count of 87 to MM&M — Vita didn’t feel the status quo was sustainable.

“Something just wasn’t working,” she recalls. “But it’s easy to say, ‘This is not going to work.’ It’s harder to fix it.”

By the end of 2017, Vita and her team had made the big decisions — most notably, to retain the Centron moniker and to narrow the agency’s therapeutic focus to oncology and rare disease. It launched its new brand, based around the notion of simplicity, before the year was out.

The brand caught on with clients, with Centron quickly claiming work from oncology specialists Tesaro (which has since been acquired by GlaxoSmithKline). But beyond that, a problem remained: “There was little oncology and rare disease on our roster. To deliver on that promise, we had to rebuild our portfolio in totality,” Vita says.

Fast forward to early 2020, a few months after Centron’s 2019 ended with jumps in revenue (to $12 million from $10 million in 2018) and head count (to 45 from 35). The roster has been replenished, with new assignments from Enzyvant, Apellis Pharmaceuticals, Partner Therapeutics and Karyopharm Therapeutics joining roster mainstays Tesaro/GSK and Bristol Myers Squibb.

Vita isn’t the type to unfurl a “mission accomplished” banner across the office foyer, but clearly she believes the agency is on a smart and sustainable path going forward. “It’s one thing to declare a vision; it’s another to dig into it,” she explains. “The goal now is staying true to what we’ve built.”

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Centron’s decision to pivot to oncology and rare disease was a prescient one — and one that’s now being attempted by agencies big and small. “A lot of companies are coming to our hunting ground, if you will,” Vita notes. Those same organizations, she adds, are competing with Centron for top-tier tacticians and strategists as well: “There’s a war for talent out there.”

Vita says Centron has what it takes to win. She believes that would-be employees crave a greater connection to their work and that, increasingly, they see greater opportunity in the small-agency environment than they do at network shops — and that both beliefs hold just as true amid the coronavirus crisis as they did before it.

That’s why one of the most immediate items on Vita’s to-do list is ensuring that Centron grows steadily and sensibly. “A while ago, we turned down the opportunity to pitch for a substantial piece of business because it might have been too much for us,” she says. “You have to balance that desire to win and compete with ‘Is this going to bite us down the line?’ You have to make sure you’re not tempted by fame, so to speak.”

The best marketing we saw in 2019…

Get Up Alarm Clock by Area 23 and Eli Lilly. This brand activation was an elevation of the Lartruvo campaign for people living with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. As an agency focused on oncology and rare disease, we appreciate that the campaign was developed from an authentic patient insight: the resilience and mental fortitude it can take to just get out of bed and face each morning. — Celine Vita