W2O’s private-equity infusion last May spurred an acquisitions streak that deepened its bench in a variety of disciplines, from scientific storytelling and health-specific social media to data/analytics and creative. But founder and CEO Jim Weiss reports that neither the nearly six-month PE process nor the deal-making whirlwind that followed threw the agency for a loop.
“We maintained, continued to grow and delivered nearly $200 million in organic revenue,” he says. “It’s really remarkable that we grew because you had six to 10 players and rainmakers in a boardroom most of the time.” The sum represents a 23% boost over 2018’s take of $162 million.
In other words, if all of the backroom negotiations rattled the agency, you’d never know it. The courtship culminated in choosing what Weiss calls the “perfect partner” in New Mountain Capital. It replaced W2O’s previous investor, Mountaingate Capital.
New Mountain’s undisclosed investment was put to work in the fall on a trio of med-comms acquisitions: Philadelphia-based Arcus Medica, followed by Radius Digital Science and ISO.health, of Montclair, New Jersey, and London, respectively. To house the newcomers, W2O formalized a scientific comms division: W2O Science now has about 100 employees, including the firm’s pre-existing medical and scientific comms personnel.
If the first three acquisitions bolstered W2O’s scientific storytelling, the next two would see the agency bolster its creative and social-media prowess. Healthcare advertising and med-ed agency 21Grams was snapped up in January 2020 (adding about 150 staff) and social-media analytics firm Symplur was acquired in April.
The five additions have transformed W2O. When factoring in their 2019 performance, the revenue sum increases to about $222 million. Staff size, in turn, has surged from 687 at the end of 2018 to 926 at the end of 2019 — and to more than 1,100 as of April. That figure includes a dozen new leaders and scores of mid-level staff. (The agency restated the 2018 staff number to exclude temps and interns.)
The timing of W2O’s growth and diversification has proven fortuitous. W2O reports business is up by 25% so far and that it has doled out its raises and promotions. Weiss says he’s “surprised but happy” about the latter development.
A good deal of that business stems from the new team gelling, according to 21Grams CEO Bob Blink, who now runs all of W2O’s integrated advertising and med-ed. “Now that we’re a few months into this, it’s not only working as planned but it has accelerated our growth,” he notes. Weiss agrees, adding, “We couldn’t ask for a more valuable partner than 21Grams to show us the way even better creatively, especially what they’ve done online.”
To get an idea of what to expect, consider 2019’s Challenge Accepted, a comedy/reality series 21Grams created for Genentech designed to help hemophilia A patients and caregivers face the reality of living with the bleeding disorder. It proved a YouTube hit upon launch, according to 21Grams chief creative officer Frank Mazzola.
“People were looking for it and wanted to watch all the episodes. It didn’t feel like something Genentech was selling, but it met the campaign goal as if it were branded or traditional,” he says.
21Grams president Wendy Levine, on the other hand, references the agency’s research into the impact of seizures on family life, on behalf of Greenwich Biosciences. The insight that epilepsy impacts everything led to the tagline, “Seizures are shared. So is relief.” Translated into strategy and creative, it has helped Greenwich’s CBD-derived epilepsy drug Epidiolex get past the stigma of cannabis.
“We saw things you typically wouldn’t be able to see behind market research, a social scrape or looking at data,” she recalls. “The home was rewired for a special-needs child, with a tactile sandbox, a bed that zippers the child in at night, an elevator and a special bathroom.”
It’s the kind of work that sits well alongside W2O’s existing data/analytics and media capabilities, which were enhanced by the addition of Symplur. “Our teams want to engage with analytics to develop insights but need information at their fingertips while an activation is underway,” explains Chuck Hemann, practice lead, digital intelligence and paid media.
W2O says it added 35 accounts last year, mainly organic work from roster mainstays such as Aimmune Therapeutics, PTC Therapeutics, Galderma and Signify Health (one, the AIDS 2020 conference, is cited as new). AOR accounts net out the same at 15, with the lone loss being Genomic Health — which was acquired by existing client Exact Sciences.
To integrate and empower its new execs, W2O put in place a new leadership structure and forged some new roles for its homegrown talent. Jennifer Gottlieb was promoted to global president, Angela Gillespie to COO, Anita Bose to chief client growth officer and Gary Grates to principal, corporate communications, strategy and transformation.
Gottlieb points to those opportunities as the reason behind W2O’s “tremendous retention of staff,” along with a hybrid training program that helps colleagues learn across disciplines. “That has enabled us to keep skills fresh,” she adds.
It’s been a terrific start to our relationship with New Mountain Capital, and I expect to continue to do acquisitions to add on exactly what clients tell us to add on.Jim Weiss
The changes didn’t stop there. Adam Cossman, formerly head of advertising, is moving over to run W2O’s technology product and solutions group. In that role, he says, he will “continue to invest in and build our operating system, both internal and external.” Elsewhere, Manoj Narayanan joined the company as chief technology officer this February. He’ll run the agency’s data science team, with chief analytics and technology officer Seth Duncan shifting over to head the strategy and innovation group.
Weiss’ goal for 2020 is to top 2019’s revenue by $80 million and boost staff by several hundred people — an ambitious one for any year, let alone one disrupted by COVID-19. While other marketing networks have similar offerings on the menu, Weiss views W2O’s integration as an elevating factor.
“How are you going to make it happen? Put all parts together,” he explains. “We still work in one P&L.”
Don’t expect the shopping spree to end just yet. “We feel government affairs are critical in the era of the pandemic,” Weiss continues. “It’s been a terrific start to our relationship with New Mountain Capital, and I expect to continue to do acquisitions to add on exactly what clients tell us to add on. Every time we do that, we end up growing the right way.”
The best marketing we saw in 2019…
The ThisAbles project by Ikea, which was conceived to allow people with special needs and disabilities to enjoy the quality of life provided by the company’s projects. The campaign not only addressed a substantial segment of the population, but it did well by doing good. Ikea isn’t a healthcare company, yet it saw the value it could provide in the healthcare space and how it could make a tangible impact. — Frank Mazzola