When the pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, the first thing Intouch Group CEO and founder Faruk Capan said to staff was that the agency network was not going to lay off a single person. The company would reduce salaries, close offices or do anything else it took to keep everyone on board, he promised.

While the announcement was well-received internally, Capan remembers the fear and uncertainty more than he does the graciousness. “Twenty-one years of work could’ve gone to nothing,” he recalls.

Some 13 months later, Capan sounds relieved, in no small part because Intouch ended up exceeding expectations during 2020. Fueled by 52 account wins and 18 new clients, the network surpassed even its pre-pandemic forecast: It reached $220 million in revenue, up 21% over 2019’s $182 million. By doubling 2017’s take of $110 million in three years, the company accomplished a goal it had set for itself.

Intouch Group

Not only did Intouch endure the myriad challenges of 2020 without layoffs, but it ended up hiring more than 300 people virtually, including 29 who returned to the organization from elsewhere (“boomerangs,” as Intouch affectionately refers to them). Overall, head count increased to 1,184 from 982. Newcomers included chief creative officer Susan Perlbachs, formerly EVP, group creative director at FCB Health. She’s responsible for leading the creative charge across the entire Intouch network.

“It’s not an easy position to hire without meeting in person — and, in fact, I still haven’t met her in person,” Capan says of Perlbachs, who arrived at the company last June. “But it’s as if we’ve been working for 20 years together.”

Along those lines, EVP, marketing and communications Wendy Blackburn believes Intouch’s digital roots and the experience of working across eight offices in three countries made the transition to remote life smoother. As a result, staff could focus on clients instead of new and unfamiliar work processes.

“Immediately they reached out with, ‘How can we help you? What can we do to prepare for what’s happening?’” she says.

Clients responded in kind. Intouch grew its relationships with Sanofi and Gilead by adding global assignments on the monoclonal antibody treatment Sarclisa and the experimental HIV drug lenacapavir, respectively. The agency helped engineer the launch of more than 20 new products and indications, including Urovant’s overactive bladder treatment Gemtesa.

“We learned something new, which was how to launch a drug virtually,” Capan says, noting a single drawback: “Sometimes we have to tell employees to take breaks, because they can work longer hours at home.”

Intouch Group’s facility with all things digital and virtual paid off in the form of landing new clients via Zoom pitches. Among the 18 additions: assignments from Clarus, Greenwich Biosciences and Seattle Genetics.

As for the burgeoning Intouch Group network, the organization’s seven agency brands — Intouch Solutions, Intouch Proto, Intouch International, Intouch Media, Intouch B2D, Intouch Analytics and Intouch Seven — drove growth in different areas and ways. For example, with clients turning increasingly to digital channels, Intouch Media upped its buying by more than 250%. Meanwhile, the shift to remote work helped marketing technology hub Intouch B2D strengthen partnerships with Adobe, Salesforce and Veeva Systems.

For Blackburn, the addition of two Astellas Pharma brands stand out, as much for the simpatico corporate cultures of the two organizations as anything else. Astellas’ U.S. headquarters are just outside Chicago, not far away from Intouch Group’s second-largest office. “There’s a bit of that Midwestern camaraderie,” Blackburn says. “And it’s midsize pharma — not a tiny biotech or a goliath, but somewhere in the middle. That tends to be a sweet spot for us.”

Capan and Blackburn are similarly proud of the work Intouch Group did around COVID-19-related public health campaigns, on behalf of both pharma and nonprofit entities. For Regeneron, which had been awarded a $450 million government contract to manufacture and supply an experimental antibody cocktail treatment, Intouch piloted Louder Than Words, which included a 30-second video showcasing the company’s dedication and technology. The catch: The video didn’t include a single line of voiceover. The idea was to market the biotech giant’s potentially lifesaving treatment without contributing to the noise of the pandemic’s first months.

On the nonprofit side, Intouch partnered with the Digital Health Coalition to produce two white papers offering recommendations for the post-pandemic reality. “The Aftermath: COVID-19 Insights & Recommendations” addressed changes in professional communications and the evolution of point of care, while “The Now & the Next in Pharma Marketing” analyzed the pandemic’s broader impact on HCPs and patients, with tips on addressing common client needs.

Intouch also partnered with Heart to Heart International on two initiatives. The first was a community engagement project in which Intouch staffers, employees and HHI workers assembled hygiene kits. The second was an infection prevention and control training program available for free to nonprofit organizations and businesses — which was funded by a $100,000 donation from Intouch. (Blackburn sits on HHI’s board of directors.)

A final Intouch philanthropic initiative was a response to the social unrest of 2020: Intouch for Justice, an employee donation-matching program. It has raised nearly $20,000 for the Equal Justice Initiative, the Innocence Project and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 

“I’m very proud that we were part of the solution,” Capan says.

While Intouch Group has seen more than its share of recent growth, Capan and co. have no desire to slow down. Having met its three-year target of doubling revenue by 2020, Intouch has set another goal: doubling again by 2023.

But it’s not just about the dollar sums, Capan stresses. “We are investing in new areas, such as medical education and science. We’re becoming more of a partner to our clients and more than an agency,” he says.

Capan predicts that Intouch Group will grow a minimum of 20% before the year is out. “And unless a UFO or something comes through, we should be in very good shape,” he adds.

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The idea I wish I had…

The Unfinished Votes initiative for Change the Ref, created by McCann Health, carries a powerful message on gun safety, delivered with a stunning use of deepfake technology. — Wendy Blackburn