Harrison and Star’s 2020 balance sheet netted out right down the middle. In a year when the impact of COVID-19 was felt unevenly across the agency sector, CEO Mario Muredda considers that a win. 

“We didn’t grow relative to the previous year, but we held our own,” he says. “Given all the changes in the marketplace and the pandemic, we’re quite happy with that.”

The firm generated revenue of $120 million in 2020, unchanged from the previous year’s MM+M-estimated take. Head count also remained flat at 260. 

When asked for some context behind the performance, Muredda notes that “clients, in situations of high uncertainty and human cost, become conservative — and rightfully so.” Then there was the loss of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) spring conference, a high-touchpoint, high-expense marketing opportunity for many of Harrison and Star’s customers. When ASCO made the decision to go virtual, budgets took a sizable hit.

Muredda also acknowledges that the agency’s business-development machine needed to be retooled to succeed in the new environment. This exercise, however, had its upside.

“Once we tweaked that approach, what we found still matters a lot is the chemistry of the team among themselves and with the clients, as well as the quality of the work we show,” he explains. “That came through in spades in our new-business efforts.”

Oncology wins included Jazz Pharmaceuticals’ small cell lung cancer med Zepzelca, Novocure’s glioblastoma devices Optune and Optune LUA, Nektar Therapeutics’ Phase II I/O drug bempegaldesleukin and Gilead’s myelodysplastic syndrome drug magrolimab. The firm also added assignments on Santen Pharma’s ocular portfolio, Merck’s chronic care business unit and Roche Diagnostics’ machines and assays. The latter win established a beachhead for Harrison and Star in the world’s largest diagnostics maker. 

Muredda is particularly proud of the firm’s work helping Gilead gain full approval for COVID-19 treatment Veklury (remdesivir), currently available for emergency use. “Gilead helped people survive COVID-19 and gave away its stockpile. We’re lucky to be associated with them,” he says. 

Harrison and Star also entered into a number of collaborative agency models. They included a joint venture with Omnicom sister shop Patients & Purpose called Healthy Bonds, as well as two similar partnerships with the health groups at mainstream siblings DDB and BBDO.

“The way we look at it is: They are consumer experts, we are HCP experts,” Muredda explains. “The client wants us to join our expertise as one common voice.”

Muredda says he anticipates a great finish to this year — Harrison and Star’s 35th in business — and the momentum to extend well into 2022. He reports additional opportunities stemming from the agency’s diversity initiative, Color of Health, which addresses health disparities on every brand and in every therapeutic area.

He also touts the recent launch of H&S Anywhere, a 100% virtual agency that, he adds, “builds on what we learned in the pandemic: that we can do amazing work without being constrained by geography.”

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The idea I wish I had…

I can’t count the number of times I’ve said “Dang, I would trade two of my greatest, for (insert ad here).” But then came the Moldy Whopper. Genius. What a simple way for Burger King to show that its product does not contain GMOs. Simple. Traditionally, painstaking pride is taken in the product “beauty shot” — so maybe what I’m most jealous of is that the client said yes to featuring a moldy product. Gutsy. I ran the Wendy’s account for years and can truly respect what magic was created here. Kudos. — Adam Hessel, chief creative officer