It’s not often that Calcium founder and CEO Steven Michaelson finds himself at a loss for words. But when asked for his take on outside perception of the agency in the wake of its gangbusters 2020 — revenue jumped 71%, to $35.9 million from $21 million in 2019 — Michaelson doesn’t have an answer at the ready.
“You know what? I’m not exactly sure,” he says with a laugh. “I know that people are coming here and they don’t leave. That’s probably a good sign, right?”
Following a flat 2018 and a slightly down 2019, Calcium rebounded in a big way in 2020. The revenue surge came on the back of new assignments from Harmony Biosciences (on excessive daytime sleepiness drug Wakix), Acceleron Pharma (the global launch of pulmonary arterial hypertension candidate sotatercept) and Chiesi Farmaceutici (on three brands in the rare disease space, Revcovi, Lamzede and Elfabrio). The additions joined work for Bristol Myers Squibb, Genentech and Strongbridge Biopharma on Calcium’s roster.
However, the growth spurt created a challenge on the new-business front, as Calcium was forced to become more discriminating in its engagement decisions. “In 2018, when we were as flat as can be, we weren’t turning anything down,” Michaelson explains. “Now, we have to make sure we don’t burn people out or dilute our resources. That means instead of pitching the eight things that come in, we limit it to one or two.”
To service the new business, Calcium expanded staff size considerably, from 85 people at the start of 2020 to 135 at the end of it. New top-level hires included EVP, head of client services Kate Shaughnessy (who arrived from Razorfish Health); EVP, executive creative director June Carnegie (Carnegie Group); EVP, global client lead Eric Shaffer (Havas Health Plus); and EVP, engagement strategy Gene Fitzpatrick (Ogilvy Health).
Calcium also expanded its geographical coverage, with Michaelson and managing partner/chief operating officer Judy Capano decamping to Miami to assist in opening the firm’s fourth office. SVP, group account director Julie Tripi is set to relocate from New York to lead it.
At the same time, Michaelson believes the flexibility afforded by the shift to virtual work has eased the firm’s perpetual quest to attract A-grade talent. “We’ve learned to be successful from wherever we are,” he says. “That really opened the door for us. We have people now in Rhode Island, in Wisconsin, all over the country.”
The firm’s reputation as a warm, welcoming place to work probably doesn’t hurt, either. “If you’re not a good person, we’re going to find that out right away,” Michaelson continues. “You can be a great agency without being nasty.”
For the rest of 2021 and beyond, Michaelson has plans to further expand the agency’s digital capabilities. He also hints at the possibility of playing in an even bigger sandbox: “Something we’ll start to look at is a global network, whether that’s by partnering or building it ourselves.”
He stresses, however, that Calcium will never outgrow its people-first roots. “We don’t want to be the biggest agency. We just want to do the best work, while creating a workplace where our people can fulfill their career goals and have a great time doing it.”
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The idea I wish I had…
Combating COVID-19 on a day-to-day basis requires wearing a mask in public — yet in January of this year, the percentage of individuals who wore them was only 51%, and it was even lower in rural areas and “red” areas of the country. Agencies who were at the forefront of anticipating the different drivers of this behavior and generating impactful segment-specific public health campaigns have our highest respect. — Garth McCallum-Keeler, managing partner and chief growth officer