Anyone looking for additional 2020-weirdness metaphors could do worse than contemplate the echoing, cavernous spaces of Evoke’s still-new, still-empty offices in lower Manhattan.
The company had been set to occupy the premises in late March of 2020. Obviously, that timeline was not meant to be. “As we sent people home when the pandemic started, we had them empty their offices for good,” recalls CEO and founder Reid Connolly. “Of course, we had no idea then how long we’d all be working from home.”
But while “the move that never happened” might conjure up images of ghost towns, the reality is that 2020 ultimately proceeded in a manner consistent with recent years, at least from a results perspective. Evoke’s revenue spiked 18% to $168.2 million, from $142.9 million in 2019. The agency went on a bit of a hiring spree to support those gains, adding more than 40 new employees. Total head count was 706 at the end of 2020, up from 663 a year prior.
Among the new hires was chief strategy officer Kristin Volk, who previously held the same role at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. Her addition, too, came with a side of 2020 weirdness. “I’m the only person at Evoke who has met Kristin in real life,” Connolly says. “She was the last person I met with face-to-face before closing down. That’s become the ongoing joke around here — that thanks to Zoom, no one knows how tall anyone is anymore.”
Evoke also brought in Eric Daly as chief growth officer and Jenni Mercer, formerly a McCann Health business development director based in Europe, as growth director. While Daly was most recently client services lead at Klick Health, this marks his second tenure at Evoke: Connolly notes that Daly was the first member of Evoke Philadelphia a decade ago.
Connolly says Daly will focus on developing new client partnerships and finding more ways to work with existing clients. That puts him in a key role, given that the agency derives three-quarters of its growth from existing clients.
Meanwhile, Connolly believes the additions will help Evoke achieve its key goal of becoming more nimble and entrepreneurial than the competition, which he believes is key to the agency’s future growth. “It helps scale the business and create one-of-a-kind opportunities for our clients’ brands. Eric knows the industry and he knows Evoke, and he will play a critical role in our continued success,” Connolly adds.
Client mainstays include Amgen, Celgene, Bristol Myers Squibb, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly and Foundations Consumer Healthcare. To more effectively serve them, Evoke launched a CX offering. It aims to deploy data and analytics to better understand customer experiences and identify approaches toward improving engagement during the moments customers may look to the brands more than at other times.
That digital thrust remains one of Evoke’s calling cards. In fact, Connolly attributes the company’s recent growth spurt in no small part to 2020’s return to its 2006 roots and its tech-driven business model.
“We started almost 15 years ago as a digital agency of record for many clients,” he explains. “And while we’re certainly much broader today, we have always been a digital-first agency. It seems like every other agency has been talking nonstop about digital transformation, and this was the year they all realized, ‘Oh, we really have to do it.’”
On the non-digital front, Evoke was behind a TV spot for Amgen’s blockbuster plaque psoriasis drug Otezla, which was among the first spots (if not the first one) to hit the airwaves post-pandemic with messaging geared toward the rise of telemedicine. While Connolly is coy about identifying Evoke’s work, he’s quick to brag about its speed: “Even as the pandemic changed everything about production, it gave us an opportunity to impress clients.”
That disparity — between Evoke’s successes and the larger misery inflicted by COVID-19 — continues to make for uncomfortable moments. “On one hand, so much of what happened outside work was so negative and terrible for many people,” Connolly says. “Yet it also gave us the chance to test ourselves as never before. It was so refreshing to see the resilience of our people, who overcame new challenges at such speed.”
The pandemic also pushed Evoke to look for new ways to deliver more strongly on its “Health More Human” promise, especially as its newly remote staffers adjusted to the realities of shutdown life. “We’re learning to be so much more understanding of people’s personal lives,” he says. “It’s hard to find balance, and we all learned about being more flexible.”
Such learnings continue to resonate in 2021. “Unfortunately, 2020 showed us how the world needs much more of that humanity,” Connolly continues. “The growing awareness of racial inequality touched so many of us in so many different ways.”
He says Evoke’s commitment to diversity looks and feels different than similar efforts at other agencies owing to the agency’s deeper relationship with data. “We try and talk about health disparities more. Even when clients don’t ask about it, we are trying to present those analyses.”
Connolly believes that in the second half of 2021, the accelerated digital push seen since the start of the pandemic will continue and even intensify. “Too often, companies have thought about brand-building and digital and channel marketing, but we know customer experience has to be a core part of the brand. It’s interlinked,” he explains. “Building a brand means you compete for relevance to earn a spot in people’s worlds, both online and off. You have to be brave on both sides — and that’s what will move the industry forward.”
Among the digital health innovations the Evoke hivemind thinks are here to stay? AI-powered patient triaging, with apps, web and live chats that analyze symptoms. The agency also expects to see more virtual reality, especially for cognitive behavioral therapy and chronic conditions, and voice assistants — think Apple’s work around “Hey, Siri, do I have the coronavirus?”
Still, Connolly concedes he’s looking forward to returning to the analog realm, especially the day when Evoke’s humans get to experience the new Battery Park City offices in person.
“I’ve been there occasionally,” he says. “But it’s still not clear to us, even when everything reopens, how many people will want to work in our offices. So we’re making sure there are plenty of hybrid options and collaborative spaces. Flexibility is the name of the game, and I’m convinced that will increase our ability to recruit great talent.”
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The idea I wish I had…
The campaign that the Federation of Quebec Alzheimer Societies launched in 2020 is a perfect example of pulling through real insights from sentiments and behaviors into striking creative. Loved Ones Forget Themselves Too humanizes Alzheimer’s by highlighting what the disease takes from both patients and caregivers: their independent identity and their relationship with one another. The work is conceptually powerful, and the execution is elegant and telegraphic. — Reid Connolly