Asked about her company’s 2019, HCB Health president Nancy Beesley says it was “full of high highs and low lows.” While the agency made the difficult decision to say goodbye to some longstanding clients, it did so with an eye on expanding into genetic medicine and other emerging areas.

That push ultimately paired HCB’s legacy clients, such as eyecare giant Alcon, with several upstart organizations that produce genetic treatments. Avellino Labs, a California-based biotech working on a treatment for a genetic eye condition, combines the agency’s two areas of expertise in one place. 

“There are a lot of pharma agencies, but there are few that know genetic medicine and ophthalmology the way that HCB does,” Beesley says.

Revenue was flat in 2019 at $14.9 million, though the agency increased head count from 75 at the end of 2018 to 80 a year later. While CEO Kerry Hilton says HCB “scaled back” its Chicago office, the agency expanded its New Jersey presence after a few client wins in the area.

“There was a lot of recruitment happening,” Hilton notes. “We brought on a lot more people than that count shows because we had some attrition and then we had the new wins around Reata Pharmaceuticals [for Bardoxolone, which treats chronic kidney disease caused by Alport syndrome] and Pacira BioSciences [for non-opioid pain drug Exparel].” Hilton adds that HCB was very picky about the replacements: “It was about ushering in a new skill set in the agency.”

As for the low lows that Beesley references, HCB lost business from Aries Pharmaceuticals when the company experienced changes in funding from its corporate parent. The agency also ended its multiyear relationships with Schumacher Clinical Partners and Texas Oncology because the work no longer aligned with the agency’s primary strengths.


“We felt both the client and the agency should look elsewhere, so that we could focus where we need to focus and they could find a new partner to bring some fresh thinking,” Hilton explains. 

HCB also endured a transformative year with Alcon, a client of nine years. In April 2019, the company was spun off from Novartis into a standalone entity — which left HCB to support new branding and launch two new products into the market.

With the coronavirus crisis raging during the first half of 2020, Hilton says HCB plans to take it “a month and a quarter at a time” during the rest of the year. While some client activity has slowed or ground to a halt, other accounts remain as busy as ever.

“Things have gone quiet with the reduction of elective surgery, but other parts of our business haven’t gone quiet,” Beesley says. “We’ve been helping clients with their corporate response to the pandemic. It is a great responsibility to be a leader, knowing how to show up with some reassurance in a time where there’s so much uncertainty. It’s a very difficult thing to navigate because there’s so much we don’t know, but it’s important to be present and to talk.”

The best marketing we saw in 2019…

A campaign from the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine during the early days of COVID-19. By borrowing classic art from the public domain and altering it with a mask and gloves, this visually brilliant work stays with you. We all have a part in this, and we can indeed make an impact by wearing personal protection equipment to stop the spread of the disease. — Nancy Beesley