Over the course of the last decade, Propeller has preached the digital-marketing gospel far and wide. So, following a year where many companies had no other choice but to definitively embrace digital, the agency could be excused if it took an “I-told-you-so” victory lap.

“It was almost like we were waiting for the moment of recognition that digital is not an add-on to marketing in this world,” says founder and president Charlie Flax. “It is the future, and we’ve seen that recognition by so many of our clients over the past year.”

In the wake of such recognition, Propeller saw revenue increase by 20% in 2020, to $8.4 million from the $7 million generated during 2019. It claimed six significant new engagements, including three from Janssen (on pulmonary arterial hypertension drugs Uptravi and Opsumit as well as Stelara, a biologic targeting Crohn’s disease), and one each from Reckitt (in the nutritionals realm), MeiraGTx (gene therapy) and The Menarini Group.

“With a lot of our clients, things that we had served up to get them excited were now even more appealing,” Flax says. “They knew the digital-forward, omnichannel world was happening, but the idea of everyone being remote and people being separated caused them to index sooner than they might have.” 

Flax attributes Propeller’s recent successes in large part to its focus on serving as the glue between other agencies and brands. He notes that the agency rarely plays the role of a traditional AOR. 

“A lot of our engagements are digital AOR engagements,” he explains. “We partner with the traditional AORs and the media agencies, sitting in the middle. It really separates us, because we don’t try to occupy the same space — and as a result, we quarterback the omnichannel marketing and execute all the digital creative.”

In 2020, that came to life around a partnership with DiD Agency, AOR for Novartis’ Cosentyx. The two agencies collaborated on strategy and Propeller helped bring it to life in the digital environment, building custom microtargeted campaigns.

Propeller similarly partnered with FCB Health on digital and omnichannel work for Novartis’ Xolair. “Not only are we doing the digital media and creative, but we are also doing a full redesign of the consumer and HCP websites,” Flax notes. 

Head count increased by 39 at the start of 2020 to 45 at its conclusion, with another 16 people added in the first few months of 2021. However, Flax notes that the intense workload has prompted Propeller to take steps to ensure that employees are taking care of themselves. The agency offered group talk sessions led by a therapist and made maternal wellness therapists available to Propeller parents.

“We are doing our best to train people on how to find that balance,” Flax says, pointing to weekly Bad Movie Night events and a ban on Friday-afternoon meetings. “It benefits our clients when our team is at peace. My biggest role right now is as a protector, to make sure that we all protect ourselves from going too far.”

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The idea I wish I had…

I have always been an admirer of Invisalign’s forward-thinking approach to both patient and HCP marketing, but over the last year it has done what most everybody else has just talked about. Its partnership with digital influencers who have a presence on channels such as TikTok and Clubhouse has set the table for other leading healthcare brands. This level of digital innovation excites me. — Charlie Flax