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HCB Health had big plans for the start of 2020. It had just held an agency-wide event attended by staff from offices around the country, and new clients and fresh hires were coming in the door. Then, on March 6, 2020, Austin’s mayor announced that the city’s annual culture and technology festival, South by Southwest, would be canceled.

For HCB, it was the shot heard ’round the world, and that was before clients started feeling the pain. “We have a lot of elective-procedure-based clients, and the government shut that down,” recalls chief commercial officer Francesco Lucarelli. In the wake of it all, HCB saw 2020 revenue drop by 29%, from 2019’s take of $12.3 million to $8.7 million.

The agency’s first response was to take care of its own. When a handful of employees came down with the virus, colleagues provided rides to the hospital. For clients, HCB took on the role of strategic consultant, serving up short-term COVID strategy and long-term messaging. 

HCB Health

The company also applied the curative power of messaging to itself, in the form of a brand refresh. “We give ‘life-changing medicine’ a voice,” explains CEO Kerry Hilton, “We thought, ‘We’re in Austin, Texas. Let’s use some of that music and that voice culture we have just blocks away from our office.’” 

The differentiation exercise appears to have paid off. “I can think of five people who have approached us, unaided, and said, ‘We saw your website. We want to learn more,’” Lucarelli reports.

Though overall staff size declined, from 80 at the end of 2019 to 50 at the end of 2020, HCB also set about upgrading its talent pool. Additions included EVP, management supervisor Lee Randolph and chief engagement officer John Adelhelm. Mike Upchurch, hired as associate creative director and promoted to creative director in April, brings with him a wealth of experience in rare disease and a killer ice-breaker: He was a champion on Jeopardy!

“Every client, the first thing they want to talk about with him is, ‘Oh my God, what [was] Alex Trebek really like?,’” Lucarelli says with a laugh, even as he notes that Upchurch’s previous work with Amgen in the renal space might be more of a professional calling card.

More than a year after SXSW was shelved for the first time, the party has returned to Austin — and HCB. Hilton reports the agency won three out of four pitches in Q1 of this year, adding to a haul that included last year’s addition of assignments from Reata Pharmaceuticals, Pacira Pharmaceuticals and Glaukos. “It’s been a phenomenal rush for us,” he says.

While Hilton hints at expansion, he maintains HCB will remain true to its independent spirit. “We’d love to grow, but we are not part of a big holding company,” he adds. “Our clients are saying, ‘We like you and our preference is to stay, so what else can you do for us?’ We’re adding those services in strategic ways.”

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The idea I wish I had…

The work done early in the pandemic by McCann Belgrade highlighting the superhero status of healthcare workers was clever and powerful. These individuals were on the frontline of the outbreak and the work clearly showed that mask wearing was critical. Kudos to the agency for this powerful reminder of the life-saving individuals who gave their all for the cause. — Hilton