In years past, it would’ve seemed odd to open a meeting with a “Renée, I had your meatballs!” shout-out to the company’s president. But these are not normal times.

Why meatballs? Like many of us on pandemic lockdown, Area 23 staffers started experimenting in the kitchen with pizzas and sourdough. “We asked everyone for quarantine recipes, and we made an Area 23 cookbook,” says Tim Hawkey, chief creative officer, whose “overabundance of hoarded spaghetti squash” informed his personal contribution of a recipe for what he calls “lockdown spaghetti squash lasagna.”

Not surprisingly, the events of 2020 made Area 23 president Renée Mellas even more acutely aware of the importance of connecting with staff. “Not just checking in to find out where an assignment is, but because you’re honestly concerned about how someone’s doing,” she explains. The cookbook initiative offered one way to connect; another was The Stranger It Gets, the Stronger We Are, a mural that came together after staffers were asked to share a weird aspect of working from home or a funny thing that happened during a Zoom call. 

Area 23

The mural compiled more than 100 submissions, including “silly things such as a Sour Patch Kids shortage,” Hawkey recalls. But others were far more serious: “We had a parent crying over homeschooling. It helped us talk about pressing issues such as mental health.”

Some 14 years after it opened its doors, Area 23 has become synonymous with creativity in medical marketing. According to Hawkey, there’s a good reason for the company’s recent surge: Revenue has grown from $42 million in 2014 to an MM+M-estimated $148 million in 2019 and an estimated $190 million in 2020, which represented a 28% jump. “Nobody anticipated that — it was the best year of our entire decade,” Mellas says.

Hawkey, for his part, doesn’t seem entirely surprised. “While most other agencies deliver a service, we deliver a product, and we want to create work that’s transformative for the industry,” he explains. “By taking that approach, we do the best work in the industry.” He then adds with a laugh, “I know I’m supposed to be the arrogant braggadocious one, and I’ll play that role if I have to.” 

Living up to that reputation, Hawkey brags about one project Area 23 has been developing for three years: A device for children with cystic fibrosis. Children with the disease must wear airway clearance vests that pound the chest to free up mucus collecting in their lungs. Partnering with Woojer, which makes haptic vests for gamers, Area 23 created a new vest that uses music to clear the lungs.

“Forty hertz is the sound frequency that loosens the mucus,” Hawkey explains. “You choose a song on your smartphone and the vest transmits the sound to the lungs.” A video by the agency shows grinning kids using the vest, called Sickbeats.

“There will be a long path to FDA approval, but we know it works,” he continues. “Pulling this together during lockdown is our proudest creative achievement.”

Mellas believes Area 23 activates something in its clients. “I like to think we rub off on them in terms of doing things in unprecedented ways,” she says. Hawkey agrees, adding, “We’re lucky to work with clients who are willing to say, ‘That’s a great idea’ and not be filled with fear that it hasn’t been done before.”

By way of example, they point to work done on behalf of Neurocrine. Last year, the company signed off on Parkinson’s Cards to Heroes, a campaign targeting Parkinson’s patients. They were sent thank-you cards to fill out for frontline medical workers; the handwriting practice helped them manage their condition.

Elsewhere on the client front, Area 23 claimed 18 assignments: 13 from existing clients and five from new ones, among them AOR nods from Boehringer Ingelheim, Eton, Dermavant Sciences, Kate Farms and VectivBio. A big boost came when Eli Lilly consolidated its agency roster from four to two and Area 23 emerged as one of the winners.

Area 23

“That was huge for us, because it’s our largest client,” Mellas says.

Though head count rose from 600 at the end of 2019 to 625 a year later, Hawkey doesn’t believe the number of staff hired is commensurate with the company’s revenue growth. “It was a tough year in that we needed more people to handle the business we took on. We have a lot of open positions,” he says.

Rob Esposito, a leader of the Lilly business, was promoted to EVP, group management director in the wake of the consolidation, while Bill Hanff was elevated to SVP, director of technology. “He oversees so much more than what we originally brought him on to do,” says Hawkey. “Last year, he created an innovative design for protective face shields and cranked our 3-D printers around the clock to print them for frontline medical workers.” 

EVP, executive creative director Marcus Kawamura headlines the list of new hires. A consumer vet with A-list telecom and automotive work to his name, Kawamura is renowned, as Hawkey puts it, as “a consumer ad legend …. Broadcast consumer work is one of our biggest growth areas. He’s very focused on technology and product design, and he’s also wonderfully kind and empathetic.” 

Senior staff attrition was low last year, which Hawkey attributes to people remaining where they felt safe. By six months into the pandemic, however, he feels like Area 23 had started “actually doing a good job making people feel they were at a great place.” He admits that, in the past, this might not have been an agency strength, but describes 2020 as “an awakening for us. Maybe Renée and I needed to find our own work/life balance to appreciate what people really needed.

“I’m not saying we ran a sweatshop,” Hawkey quickly adds. “But now we’re working to create an environment where people feel connected. We speak to the staff often, touching on subjects like mental health and racial injustice — things people never heard us talk about before. It’s bringing everybody together. I think that’s ultimately what kept people around — they’d say, ‘Hey, Area 23 is actually changing and I kinda like what I see.’”

Mellas agrees wholeheartedly. “One thing 2020 taught us is that in business and in life, you can’t predict the future,” she explains. “Last year, Tim and I said we weren’t going to push the employees; we tried to be more a community than a company. Despite that intent, we grew by 30%. We learned that when you take care of people mentally and spiritually, they do their best work for you.”

. . .

The idea I wish I had…

Publicly Traded by FCB/SIX for LifeStyles. Data-driven marketing doesn’t have to be boring! — Tim Hawkey