The year 2020 was not one that many agencies would describe as comfortable — but Digitas Health was, in its own way, prepared for it. As chief medical officer Lee Fraser puts it: “We’ve always lived OK in that weird unknown space.” 

Chief growth officer Craig Douglass agrees, noting that ushering clients into uncharted realms is one of the talents upon which the agency prides itself. “When I squint and I look across all of our work, that’s in everything,” he explains. “It’s helping our clients be comfortable with things that they would not generally be comfortable doing.”

Which isn’t to say that Digitas Health actively advocates for clients to push the envelope. “I don’t think you can move people out of their comfort zones,” Douglass continues. “What you have to do is make their comfort zones bigger to include new things.”

For clients in the healthcare sector, the pandemic brought into focus the responsibility of rising to meet the moment. It was a responsibility that Digitas Health took quite seriously.

“People need help in healthcare,” Douglass stresses. “It isn’t easy, and the opportunity to build brands that actually take an active role in the lives of their patients and people that they seek to help remains as critical as ever.”

Digitas Health’s forward-mindedness paid off on multiple fronts, Fraser reports. He points to the agency’s work on Glaxo-SmithKline’s COPD treatment Trelegy Ellipta, which was developed prior to the pandemic but found special resonance in the altered reality.

“A lot of the content for people with COPD didn’t really seem to be talking to real people with COPD,” he explains. “People living with a respiratory complication during a respiratory pandemic don’t want to see the typical happy beach-type scenes. They needed content that was going to actually help them.” 

To that point, Douglass believes pharma companies can and should do more to read the proverbial room. “If you look at a lot of the pharma work and some work that our clients were doing pre-pandemic, it doesn’t fit in now and I don’t think it will fit in post-pandemic. Healthcare is changed for all of us.”

From a business perspective, much of what Digitas Health did during 2020 worked. The firm saw revenue increase 21%, to an MM+M-estimated $145 million from an estimated $120 million in 2019. Around 60% of growth came from existing clients and 40% from new ones. Additions included work Endo Aesthetics’ unbranded Really Cellulite effort.

Douglass attributes Digitas Health’s recent successes in no small part to the firm’s self-anointment as “the first global connected-health agency.” When asked about the company’s focus on connections serving as a source of resilience during a challenging year, he even gets a bit philosophical.

“There’s a tendency to look at all of the stuff we make as objects or items that are out in the world,” he says, noting Digitas Health’s insistence on paying attention to the space between objects. “The connection between these things is an actual thing you have to think about, design for, build for, manage and optimize. For example, the connection between the patient and the doctor — that’s a thing, and it broke under the pandemic.” 

Indeed, adaptability was put to the test for every agency last year. With plans to shoot two broadcast spots in the early months of the pandemic and no playbook for managing productions under the new and adverse set of circumstances, Digitas Health had to improvise. Its production teams quickly adapted to fluid location bidding processes, casting real families to meet COVID-19 restrictions on actors and developing a complex communications flow between countries, cities and individual homes.

Somehow, it worked. “Since then, we’ve shot and produced four broadcast spots and have adopted many of our learnings as best practices,” says Douglass.

With employees and clients suddenly spread out across more than 20 states, finding efficient methods of working together was an imperative. “Overnight, our 500-plus person organization migrated to Microsoft Teams,” says Douglass, noting that the company didn’t blow a single deadline. The agency also initiated new operational models and started using Mural, an online digital whiteboard, for virtual collaboration.

Head count ultimately grew, from 500 at the end of 2019 to 525 at the end of 2020, with Digitas Health bringing in a number of people from outside the industry. “The need for healthcare doesn’t go away,” Douglass notes. “Maybe the need for cars or air travel or hospitality lessens, so there was talent available.”

Digitas Health also strove to incorporate diverse perspectives more broadly across the agency. To that point, the agency created a new position, director of equity and inclusion, and brought in former Condé Nast and Droga5 exec Ash Ramirez to fill it. 

As a result, Digitas Health feels even more confident that its work reflects the diversity of the communities that clients’ products serve. At times, it has tapped the resources of parent agency Publicis Groupe.

“Some of that is work we’re doing and some of it is leveraging other group agencies that specialize in diverse populations,” Douglass says. “This is driven by us seeing it as the right thing to do — but also, interestingly, our clients have a similar increased awareness and are looking for that kind of support and work.”

However much clients may have evolved in other ways, getting from concept to product remains a major challenge — and, Douglass predicts, one that won’t ever get easier, even for an established A-list firm such as Digitas Health. “We could have a great meeting with a client and pitch a killer idea, then hear, ‘That’s awesome!’ Well, now they have to go tell that story to somebody to get the funds or the permission,” he says.

That’s why he returns to the notion of gently goading clients to pursue new and different approaches. “Their ability to do the new thing, to do the thing that’s maybe a little different because that’s what’s necessary in this moment for this population of people — at the end of the day, that’s the work. How do we bring our clients to new places?”

. . .

The idea I wish I had…

Uber’s No Mask, No Ride campaign. It was a great response to life during the pandemic. The company managed to find a sweet spot at the intersection of what was good for people and what was good for the brand/business. The campaign also underscored how every person, brand and industry is impacted by health — or the lack thereof. — Craig Douglass

An earlier version of this story misattributed work on Alynylam Pharmaceuticals’ “Behind the Stone” campaign.