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Asked to reflect on Biolumina’s 2020, agency president and CEO Kirsten Kantak and chief creative officer Diane Iler-Smith point to an initiative that has nothing to do with oncology — which, of course, has been the agency’s almost singular focus in recent years. Rather, the work that made them most proud was related to COVID-19 and the increase in violence against Asian people.

Iler-Smith recalls that, in the pandemic’s early months, the United Nations issued a global call for creative work designed to educate a range of audiences about COVID-19. Biolumina’s resulting contribution, Don’t Be Blind to the Truth, tapped the experiences of the firm’s Asian-American staff. “The idea was inspired by personal accounts … it was actually one of the first creative efforts we did in the fully remote world,” she says.

In a year that was far from normal, Biolumina delivered its usual results. Revenue grew 18%, from an MM+M-estimated $55 million in 2019 to an estimated $65 million in 2020. Staff size surged from an estimated 200 people at the end of 2019 to an estimated 230 a year later. Personnel additions included SVPs/creative directors Dorothy Chin (who arrived from Havas Life Metro) and Troy Clark (from BGB Group).

Iler-Smith believes Biolumina is in an enviable position, especially as it pertains to the surging oncology pipeline. “Last year we turned down a lot of requests for pitches because they were outside of oncology and many more because the timing wasn’t right,” she says. “We were busy and didn’t have the bandwidth. We are very fortunate that we can make those decisions and that we have that autonomy.”

Of the new business that Biolumina did accept, 95% of it came from existing clients. Additions in 2020 included assignments from Janssen (on the company’s prostate cancer franchise, including Erleada), Seagen (for breast cancer drug Tukysa) and AstraZeneca (on non-small cell and small cell lung cancer drug Imfinzi).

In another case, the work came from a former client who’d recently changed jobs. “Do great work and people will come back to you, even as they move on and move up in their careers,” Kantak says. 

Still, Kantak believes the agency’s greatest achievement during 2020 was something far more mundane. “This will sound a little tongue-in-cheek, but we survived,” she says. “As an agency we grew pretty significantly, but what we focused on is that we are all human and we all needed to be compassionate and empathetic. We were all dealing with this situation differently.”

The daily emails Kantak sent to all employees was a big part of the overall survival strategy. “Most days we tried to give a tip — about how to run a meeting, how to delegate, how to take a break, why stretching is important, why meditation is important,” she recalls. “Especially for folks who live alone, it gave people something to hold onto.”

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The idea I wish I had…

The Trial for #ClinicalEquality. This campaign addresses racial disparity in oncology clinical trials, a significant problem with profound consequences. The black-and-white photography is stunning and humanizes the issue, elevating the need to drive change. It’s a simple yet emotional campaign that speaks to your head and heart.  — Kirsten Kantak