Digitas Health president Eric Muller and chief growth officer Craig Douglass say they can recall the precise moment in 2019 when they realized their agency had reached a new creative level. 

It was during a November pitch meeting, one of the earlier sessions in a months-long marathon involving multiple sit-downs and video conferences. When presenting to dozens of members of a client team, Muller says it’s all too easy — and common — for agencies to play it safe. However, in this instance Digitas went for it.

“There was a clear moment that day when we put the stake in the ground, letting the client know we would do something big. It was a very conscious decision not to let the risk we were taking scare us,” he recalls.

The agency won the business, but the real thrill and bigger victory may have been the validation that the decision to push boundaries worked out well for everyone: the client, Digitas Health and, ultimately, patients. “As much as we can, we’re working to get away from the industry standard,” Muller continues. “We’re shaking off that veneer of the pharma lifestyle look, like people walking their dog on a beach.”

The win helped keep Digitas Health in growth mode. MM&M estimates the agency generated $120 million in revenue during 2019, up 12% from $107.5 million in 2018. Staff size grew from 475 people at the end of 2018 to 500 at the end of 2019.

It’s nice to grow, of course, but Muller cautions that rapid expansion comes with its own risks. 

“We take new people on and they bring a fresh perspective. But it’s difficult integrating that many new people into our agency,” he says. “We want to make them feel that they fit and are valued. But then you have to train them to understand the principles of the agency and how we operate as an organization. Our purpose as an agency has to square with employees’ individual purpose.”

BIKTARVY_MMM_2020

Over the last year, Digitas Health has been expending considerable energy into bulking up its New York office. Among others, the agency added EVP, client service Desmond Yuen, who arrived from a similar position at Evoke.

“He’s helping us accommodate the growth that we’re experiencing, and to manage growth in that office specifically,” Muller says.

Departures included chief strategy officer Susan Manber, who left to become the chief patient officer at Digitas Health parent Publicis Health.

Not that any organization could have entirely prepared itself for the COVID-19 pandemic, but Douglass believes that Digitas Health has weathered the early months of the crisis as well as could have been expected. The agency also feels prepared to confront whatever comes next.

“In a time of crisis, you’re forced to examine your fundamentals,” Douglass says. “We’re pretty optimistic about what’s at the heart of our agency. We’re focused on being helpful, as opposed to being a hard sell.”

That, Douglass believes, is how an agency becomes an essential partner. “That’s how value gets created, and adaptability is essential,” he continues. “Being able to respond and shift to new ways of doing things is an important part of who we are.”

Digitas Health likes to refer to itself as “the agency of now,” a guiding ethos that includes a stepped-up emphasis on high-impact storytelling and emotional connection. “The work that we’ve been most proud of has a created engagement that is authentic in a way that pharma has the absolute right to be able to do,” Douglass explains.

Truth matters. And when the truth shows through in our work, that’s revelatory and very rewarding for us.

Craig Douglass

Furthermore, he expects that conviction to intensify in a post-COVID-19 landscape. 

“Right now, as an industry, we should be saying that we’re providing essential life-sustaining treatment and services. We should lean into that, acknowledging that this is a pandemic, an economic crisis and an info-demic,” he continues. “Truth matters. And when the truth shows through in our work, that’s revelatory and very rewarding for us.”

And while Douglass doesn’t believe that generating great ideas is hard, he notes that, in the grander scheme of things, “It’s relatively simple. It’s how you bring that idea into the world that is very difficult.”

One of Digitas Health’s favorite proof points around that thinking came earlier this year in a dark room as team members screened the agency’s new work for Gilead’s HIV drug Biktarvy. “We’re so proud of this work and transforming the perception people with HIV have of themselves,” Muller says. “It’s content that is so authentic and true to the people who need it.” Watching rough cuts of the first edits, he adds, members of the client team “were wiping our tears away to make it look like we weren’t crying.”

Muller believes Digitas Health’s work on the campaign resonates because it achieves the degree of emotional realism typically associated with PSAs and unbranded work — but in a branded context. “With this, we are pushing the envelope of what to do in a branded campaign.”

If there’s an element that distinguishes Digitas Health from the competition, Muller believes it’s philosophical in nature. He says the agency has long recognized that media choices and delivery are as important as campaign concepts.

“Typically, when a client wants to do TV, that can become the focus,” he explains. “But we try very hard to put the strategy of the storytelling first. The media comes second. That’s what unlocks the power of the content.”

While Digitas Health execs and team members take a good deal of pride in the Biktarvy content, they’re similarly gratified by the agency’s long history with Gilead in the HIV realm, including unbranded work over the last several years on the Healthysexuals campaign. That one broke ground as well, daring to playfully communicate about HIV patients aspiring to have healthy sexual relationships.

That’s probably why Douglass says watching Gilead pioneer research to treat COVID-19 makes the client connection that much stronger. “We have helped shift the HIV story from sickness to health, and our teams go to work every day and yield powerful work, designing content that is authentic and true to the people that have lived with a perception of HIV that’s lasted three decades,” he says. “We’re helping to transform that perception of themselves, the way they’re viewed by society. They are on a journey, and they don’t need to be stigmatized anymore.”


The best marketing we saw in 2019…

Challenge Accepted, an unbranded series from Genentech around hemophilia. It’s a nice bit of smart and contemporary storytelling that helps people live a better life with hemophilia. — Craig Douglass