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Reams have been written about how COVID-19 accelerated change within life sciences. But even in a year of pandemic-prompted boundary-pushing, Klick Health took pains to ensure its client work stood out.

Consider the debut of Biohaven Pharma’s acute migraine med Nurtec ODT in early March 2020 — a launch which, according to Klick CEO Lori Grant, kicked off the industry’s wave of digital-first launches. 

“We had to pivot with the client from a very traditional launch to a digital-first launch using the patient voice,” she recalls. “And when we say ‘pivot,’ we mean days and minutes versus weeks and months. The team really rallied.”

Take Back Today, the agency’s patient-focused PR and social campaign backed by uber-influencer Khloé Kardashian, quickly powered Nurtec ODT to the market lead in new-to-brand prescriptions for its class. On his firm’s second-quarter 2020 earnings call, Biohaven CEO Vladimir Coric called the 52.6% NBRx share a “tremendous accomplishment.”

He also noted that the competing oral CGRP, AbbVie’s Ubrelvy, had an eight-week head start and that Biohaven’s field reps had been promoting Nurtec ODT for only two days before they retreated to their homes in the wake of shelter-in-place orders.

Kardashian’s 100 million followers clearly helped Biohaven and Klick overcome the unexpected headwinds (though it should be noted that Ubrelvy’s own spokesperson, tennis legend Serena Williams, remains one of the most influential athletes alive). But Grant says the campaign broke new pharma-industry ground on several fronts: as the first branded Sponsored Moment with WebMD, the first branded content integration with BuzzFeed, the first Hulu sponsorship and the first Spotify and Pandora podcast integration. Grant credits Biohaven for being “a client not afraid to challenge the status quo.”

Indeed, Grant’s first full year as Klick CEO featured more than its share of challenges, courtesy of a pandemic that upended healthcare in as profound and disorienting a manner as imaginable. But she believes that the agency — and the industry as a whole — met them with spirit and determination. 

“As an industry and as leaders, we understood that when you’re in a global pandemic for the first time, there is no guidebook. There is no one to call or lean on,” she says. “We have to lean on each other’s leadership.”

Grant helped steer Klick to one of the most successful years in the company’s 23-year history, with 22% increases in both revenue (to an MM+M-estimated $421 million, from its estimated 2019 take of $345 million) and head count (to 1,156, from 948 the year prior). The gains, however, didn’t come easily.

“As an entire company, we knew we’d be making some of the most important decisions of our entire careers. Our leadership skills would be tested like never before and our ability to really pivot with our clients seamlessly would be tested in ways we never realized,” she says.

To that end, after the agency formalized her ascension to CEO in August (with predecessor Leerom Segal moving to the role of chairman and group CEO), Grant moved to solidify her leadership team. This February, she elevated managing directors Greg Rice and Ari Schaefer to co-presidents.

The firm also debuted a pair of new practices, intelligence and scientific innovation, to go with the consulting and venture arms it launched last year. Leading the newest practices are SVP of intelligence Keri Hettel (formerly of Razorfish Health), VP of intelligence Meredydd Hardie (Gravity Partners) and SVP, scientific innovation Tim Mitchell, Ph.D. (London-based Real Science).

Meanwhile, the last half-year saw Klick bulk up its teams with a flurry of hirings in strategy (SVP, strategy January Coyle, formerly of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness); technology, (VP, technology Jonathan Arsenault, previously with Accenture); and policy (VP, policy and public health Brandi Hight Bank, previously with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ national vaccine program office, and VP, stakeholder coalitions Randi Goeckeler, previously with Allergan).

Chief creative officer Rich Levy built out his team as well, bringing on industry veterans such as SVP/executive creative director Ludovic Moulin (formerly of FCB Health Network) and VP, group creative directors John Hastings (formerly of  21 Grams) and Krista Holmstrom (from FCB Health New York). 

Klick took steps to enrich the larger industry’s talent pipeline, too. To help meet the growing demand for well-rounded people, the agency co-launched, alongside the New York University School of Professional Studies, a new Healthcare Marketing and Communications Certificate. 

As Klick continues to hire at a rapid pace, Grant says the company plans to ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion remain a top priority. The firm made what she calls “a huge commitment” by signing onto last June’s “call for change” letter initiated by Black advertising professionals. Similarly, it’s working with clients to apply a broader lens across therapeutic categories, including an intensified focus on the social determinants that may impact patient need.

Those efforts culminated in Klick’s “Rise Above COVID” program, which is designed to encourage more diverse participation in the National Institutes of Health’s ACTIV-2 COVID-19 clinical trial by taking the campaign into Black-owned barbershops and salons. Behind its anchor headline — “I’m not a COVID-19 patient, I’m a breakthrough waiting to happen” — was a unified effort involving the agency’s policy, advocacy, diversity, creative, media, tech, UX and social teams.

“That is the integration a client is looking for,” Grant stresses, adding that the pandemic “intensified clients’ need for partners who could pivot really quickly and come together” in such a manner.

If consistent hiring and continuous business growth summed up Klick’s 2020, then constant evolution positions it for more such engagements. A partnership with Komodo, for instance, gives customers access to anonymized data around patient encounters.

“COVID has accelerated a number of different things, and the commercialization leaders within our client organizations are looking for an agency who can accelerate with them,” Grant says. “We’ve certainly proven that we can.” 

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The idea I wish I had…

At a time when washing our hands was never more important, we appreciated how Laboratorios Cinfa paid tribute to the pharma industry while providing people with a practical tool in the fight against COVID-19. Their paper-like pharmacy prescription bags that turn into soap when exposed to water is a really unique and impactful way to highlight the problem and solve it with innovation and creativity. — Lori Grant