As COVID-19 invaded the U.S. in March, McCann Health global CEO John Cahill was, in his words, “quietly confident” that his agency would be able to endure and even thrive amid the chaos.

For one thing, McCann Health has a greater global footprint than most agency networks, including a substantial presence in Asia. It’s the only healthcare communications company with a seat on the Private Sector Roundtable supporting the United Nations global health security agenda. And its global medical director Dr. Dan Carucci is tight with a Who’s Who of public health experts at the CDC, WHO and Bill Gates Foundation.

So when the coronavirus first started to rage in China, McCann Health had its people in the region working from home well before the onset of the Chinese New Year. Before the end of January, Carucci started circulating a high-level COVID-19 dispatch on a weekly basis.

“We took all that learning and brought it to Europe and the U.S., and got ourselves prepared,” reports Cahill — who, as of mid-April, was waiting out a second wave of coronavirus infections in Hong Kong. “We knew, obviously, that there would be impact around meetings and face-to-face symposia. The message was that brands had to find new ways to talk to doctors.”

Much of the learning sat at the intersection of health and technology — and, specifically, in health delivery via social platforms. Cahill points to China and the deeply entrenched platforms, such as WeChat and Alibaba, that facilitated some 420 million health consultations with 190 million people during 2019.

“This telemedicine moment is going to be one of duration, because it solves a lot of problems we were already wrestling with,” he says. “I see this crisis as an opportunity to legacy-shift. Reps will eventually come back, but they’ll be augmented by these new systems.”

It’s this thinking and curiosity that has made McCann Health one of the go-to agencies for any piece of business that demands both scientific rigor and a bigger-picture perspective — which is to say, any piece of business, period. It’s one of the reasons that, when GlaxoSmithKline put a huge chunk of its global business up for grabs last year, McCann Health came away with a lion’s share of it.

“We’re no strangers to GSK, nor they to us. What we saw is they’re evolving into a next-generation pharma group, with technology and data playing a major role,” Cahill says. “They wanted new ways of looking at that customer journey from illness to wellness.” As part of its pitch, McCann Health partnered tightly — or “hybridized,” as Cahill puts it — with other Interpublic network organizations, most notably data/analytics shop MRM.

In addition to the expanded remit from GSK, McCann Health added work from AstraZeneca (on the company’s renal portfolio), Gilead Sciences (B-cell lymphoma drug

Yescarta), Bayer Consumer Health (antifungal Canesten and laxative RestoraLAX), Sarepta Therapeutics (gene therapies), Alcon (eye drops and contact lenses), Kite Pharmaceuticals and Sanofi Genzyme. They join a roster that includes Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Amgen.

The additions helped spark a nearly 10% jump in revenue, from an MM&M-estimated $207.5 million in 2018 to an estimated $227.5 million in 2019 (“with strong profitability,” Cahill notes). More than half of the new assignments are global in nature.

This telemedicine moment is going to be one of duration, because it solves a lot of problems we were already wrestling with.

John Cahill, global CEO

McCann Health saw some change in its upper executive ranks during 2019, with president of the Americas Amar Urhekar departing in October. “He’d been with us for quite a few years and wanted to go off and do other things,” Cahill says. The agency has identified Urhekar’s de facto replacement, who will assume the role of president, McCann Health North America, but as of press time had no plans to formally install him or her until the year’s third quarter.

Elsewhere, McCann Health elevated chief strategy officer, North America Hilary Gentile into the global CSO role and hired Jeff Erb away from Interpublic Group sibling Healix to serve as president, McCann Health Engagement. The company also brought in former H4B Catapult exec Jill Beene to head up its HCP-focused McCann Health Echo brand as president. She replaces Jesse Johanson, who left for W2O earlier in 2019.

Overall, head count grew from 797 people at the end of 2018 to 850 at the end of 2019. Cahill says that McCann Health continues to look to broaden its talent base, pandemic-fueled recession or no.

The company expanded its geographical scope as well, opening an office in Montreal and consolidating some of its med comms and pharma resources in a single unit based in Toronto. Cahill believes the Canadian market is something of a sleeping giant, both in terms of talent and the progressiveness of its health system.

“You can see how that marketplace is developing with empowered health consumers and the way the health system is driving participation with citizens. The opportunity is tremendous,” he says.

McCann Health thrives in such environments, viewing them as fertile ground for scientific, analytical and technological innovation. Indeed, the agency spent much of the year transitioning its approach from “presentation to conversation” and from “sales to solve,” as Cahill puts it.

“As an industry, pharma has been schooled in the presentation paradigm. We’ve been presenting stuff for a long time,” he explains. “But over the past seven to 10 years, the rest of the world has moved into conversations. It’s on us to help clients make that move.”

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McCann Health is doing so by drawing on the expertise of its McCann Worldgroup siblings, which have worked in just about every extant vertical. “They’ve been in those conversations with technology and automotive and credit card clients,” Cahill says. “We can take those learnings and bring them into healthcare.”

The agency similarly plans to draw on experiences accumulated during the COVID-19 era. Cahill believes McCann Health can make up for constricted rep access through smarter deployment of nonpersonal promotion tactics, and for the slow-down in clinical trials by “getting inventive” with next-generation real world evidence platforms. He’s optimistic that his company, and the industry as a whole, will come out of the crisis smarter and supremely battle-tested.

“For now, it’s about having a steady hand on the tiller and making sure we have a good line of sight and visibility into our clients’ business,” Cahill says. “This won’t resolve quickly, but I don’t think it will get much worse.”


The best marketing we saw in 2019…

The latest campaign from the Hospital for Sick Children’s SickKids Foundation features real SickKids patient families and hospital staff members to bring a glimpse of the realities they face every day to the public light. It was exceptional in the way it portrayed the weight of illness in children, and carried the viewer through to victory in an incredibly compelling way. — John Cahill