Approaching two years since it was birthed from WPP sibling firms VML, Y&R and Sudler & Hennessey, VMLY&R has pushed past the inevitable post-merger headaches and realized the potential it touted at launch.

During 2019, its first full year as a united entity, VMLY&R grew its health revenue to $100 million. That represents an 11% jump over the $90 million generated by the predecessor organizations in 2018.

Nonetheless, 2019 was a year in which the agency firmed up its capabilities and positioning, according to chief business officer, healthcare Howard Courtemanche. “The first thing we did was write one slide that said, ‘What do we have here?’” he explains. “We

have something pretty unprecedented, in terms of all the capabilities coming together under one roof. So the slide simply said, ‘The most complete and powerful healthcare communications offering in the world.’ We hung that up as an ambition, and also as a promise we could fulfill from day one.”

In March 2019, VMLY&R scored its first big healthcare win: the direct-to-consumer work for Genentech’s multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus.

“It was a seminal moment because everybody realized that we’re all in this together and we can all win together,” Courtemanche says.


Other additions came quickly, including HCP work for Alnylam’s Givlaari and GlaxoSmithKline’s flu vaccine. VMLY&R also developed the much-lauded Slow Turkey campaign for Pfizer’s smoking cessation drug Chantix. By the end of 2019, it had increased its total number of clients from 41 to 47. All 47 are for AOR engagements.

While there was some executive reshuffling amid the changes, VMLY&R ended 2019 with 325 health-focused staffers under its roofs, up from 300 at the end of 2018. Additions included NY/NJ health recruiting lead Stephanie Moise, who arrived from FCB Health. Longtime VML staffer Mark McClendon was installed as head of health practice operations.

Courtemanche gives credit to the agency’s management team, comprised of leaders from each of the three legacy organizations, for communicating effectively along the way.

“We went and spoke by discipline and we were constantly communicating in person or in town halls or via email,” he says. “We wanted people to feel like the management team was getting to know them and hearing them out about their hopes and dreams and their fears, and what the good things were and what the not-so-good things were.”

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the agency is collaborating earlier and more often with experts from the 7,000-strong VMLY&R mother ship. Especially as healthcare companies push deeper into digital communications and marketing, VMLY&R health strategists and creatives haven’t been shy about availing themselves of digital and consumer expertise housed in other parts of the company.

“Clients more and more don’t want an agency for HCP and an agency for consumer and an agency for digital,” Courtemanche explains. “They want one entity under one roof with one leader and one bill.”

Clearly he welcomes the change. “Five or six years ago, I was doing consumer work and clients would ask for HCP work and I would say, ‘I can’t, but I have a sister company that can.’ That just adds a layer of complexity that the client doesn’t want to deal with. Now we can handle it all and let them have more time to think about their business and grow.”

The best marketing we saw in 2019…

The GSK Breath of Life campaign in China, where they turned mobile phone microphones into screeners for COPD. Then there was that soap opera stunt in Peru, where the agency arranged to have a character on one show die and leave his kidney to a character from another show. Organ donation went up 200%. — John Bollinger, creative director