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When Avant Healthcare CEO Arun Divakaruni declares his firm the “best-kept secret in healthcare marketing,” it’s not a far-fetched claim. Taken together, Avant’s out-of-the-way location in Carmel, Indiana, its 27-year track record and its 40-strong in-house medical staff (comprising Ph.D.s, PharmDs and M.D.s) practically scream “sleeper agency.” 

Sitting under parent company DWA Healthcare Communications Group, Avant specializes in promotional medical education and advertising. It often works in concert with sister agencies Avail and Forefront Collaborative, which offer meeting planning/speaker bureau services and accredited CME, respectively.

“We are really great at scientific storytelling — not just in the traditional sense of good art and copy, but in telling a scientific story to influence and engage behavior,” says Divakaruni, a PhD who doubles as chief science officer.

Avant Healthcare

The ability to bring those narratives to life in new technologies like augmented reality and weave them across channels is another strength, adds chief creative officer Patrick Kelley. “What we found in 2020 is that it’s not just about integrated content marketing, but about integrated storytelling and how you connect dots across channels,” he explains.

Divakaruni agrees, adding that the firm has seen “enormous growth” in medical affairs, facilitating scientist-to-scientist communication.

Breadth and depth has been a differentiator, helping Avant grow its business in a year when the marketing services sector took a hit. The agency generated $34 million in revenue in 2020, up 24% from 2019’s take of $27.5 million. 

That performance, according to DWA CEO and owner Deborah Wood, wasn’t a foregone conclusion. “We started with an agressive plan in Q1, then woke up on March 12 and everything was upside down,” she recalls. “The world stopped. Clients stopped. They had to. For a couple of months it was uncertain where business was going.”

Management fell back on its people-first approach, making an early decision to alleviate some of the “insurmountable” pandemic pressures its staff were under, both professionally and personally. “We made commitments to employees that there would be no interruption in salaries and no layoffs,” she continues. “We put flexibility first. Eliminating some of those pressures allowed our people to focus on customers, who turned to us to plot a new course.”

Indeed, diseases weren’t exactly sheltering in place, so clients working in serious or life-threatening conditions couldn’t afford to pause for long, either. “By Q2, we were building virtual platforms like we never built in the past, catalyzing everything our customers needed in a virtual environment. It was very powerful,” Kelley says.

New hires expanded Avant’s head count by just under 11%, from 153 at the end of 2019 to 169 at the end of 2020. Most of the additions were mid-level ones, designed to support existing staff promotions. Promoted execs included Sean Markwardt, who advanced to lead Avant’s new medical affairs center of excellence, and Craig Moore, who moved up to VP of digital.

Moving forward, look for Avant’s storytelling to start to encompass even newer technology, such as extended reality (XR) and 3-D and 4-D molecule development. “Avant is leaning into experiential for the HCP to get complex scientific messages across in new ways folks haven’t seen yet,” Kelley says.  

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The idea I wish I had…

#OutThereForUs, an April 17, 2020, campaign release by the Ad Council. It’s a poignantly simple yet totally viral thank-you to the essential workers who led the fight for us during the global pandemic, COVID-19. It resonated across our country.  — Patrick Kelley