On March 3, 2020, as the potential severity of the COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to become evident, Merge announced its acquisition of Sandbox. The deal created one of the agency world’s larger independent agencies: Overnight, Merge more than doubled its number of employees working on health-related business (228 at the end of 2019 and 515 at the end of 2020) and entered a much loftier revenue class ($102 million in health-related revenue in 2020, up from a pre-acquisition sum of $42.3 million in 2019).
It similarly expanded its geographical footprint, with offices in Los Angeles, New York and Kansas City, Missouri, added to the company’s pre-merger presence in Chicago, Atlanta and Boston.
Not surprisingly, CEO Patrick Venetucci cites the Sandbox acquisition as one of the year’s greatest successes — as much for the circumstances under which it came together as anything else. “Uniting Merge and Sandbox was done in 90 days,” he recalls. “In a weird way, COVID accelerated our integration efforts. It brought us together so much more closely and quicker than normal because we faced a common challenge.”
Merge has long differed from many of its Agency 100 peers in that it boasts a substantial presence in verticals beyond health and wellness. Its client roster includes everyone from Abbott and Takeda to T-Mobile and Marco’s Pizza, with Philips Healthcare, Supernus Pharmaceuticals, the American Medical Association, Wolters Kluwer Health, Orbita and GE Healthcare ranking among its 2020 additions in the healthcare realm.
EVP of client services, life sciences practice area lead Barry Vucsko believes this diversity serves clients well. “They get more ideas and a bigger breadth of them,” he explains. “We can bring together creative thinking from many different fronts that all-pharma, all-the-time agencies can’t provide.”
Venetucci agrees, adding that Merge’s diverse roster proved a competitive advantage during a challenging year. “We had the right mix of clients to weather the storm and actually grow,” he says. “We had launches, we had pizza and we had a lot of other things that were COVID-proofed.”
On the staff front, key additions included chief digital officer Saurab Bharagava and chief client officer Nick Jones. “There is a theme to our hiring and that word is ‘commerce,’” Venetucci notes. “We are hiring talent that can help clients drive traffic and transactions.”
Meanwhile, in the wake of a year when DE&I efforts finally became a top priority at many agencies, Venetucci believes that diversity and inclusivity have been woven into the culture of the combined company “from the very beginning. Recruiting is an important part of this and we have increased the diversity of management and created our first mentoring program.”
Heading into the second half of 2021, Venetucci is bullish on multiple fronts. “The optimism we are seeing in the world, we are also seeing among our clients and our people,” he continues. “There’s some concern about the back half of the year, but that concern seems to be thawing by the week.”
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The idea I wish I had…
I’m partial to creative solutions that merge storytelling with technology — such as Fatal Recognition, an app and awareness campaign developed by Cheil Worldwide for The Hong Kong Stroke Association. Too many stroke stories recount how someone missed an early warning sign of stroke: face drooping. The app changes the story by using a mobile device’s facial recognition technology to detect drooping faster than human perception can. The solution is elegant because it leans into everyday behavior and leverages a ubiquitous tool. — Patrick Venetucci