A quick analysis of the companies featured in MM+M’s 2021 Agency 100 reveals that approximately 99 of them are on a Sisyphean quest to attract top-grade upper-level talent. And then there’s VMLY&R, which engineered three of the year’s biggest personnel coups via the additions of chief creative officer, health Augé Reichenberg, executive creative director, experience design Walter Geer III and chief science officer Sean Rooney.
The hirings enhanced the perception that, of the network agencies in the $100-million-and-up weight class, VMLY&R has the strongest winds at its back. The company’s 2020 results — a 12% jump in revenue, from $100 million in 2019 to $112 million — do little to challenge that thinking. The agency grew from 325 people at the start of 2020 to 400 at the end of it; by early April, it had hired 40 more.
Factor in an upgraded global presence and a wealth of new assignments from clients old and new (AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Genentech and Alexion Pharmaceuticals, among others), and it’s no surprise that VMLY&R finds itself on the agency A-list less than three years after it was assembled from select parts of the former WPP Health & Wellness offering.
“People are seeing us as new, mysterious and scary,” Reichenberg says. “We don’t have the legacy of FCB or Havas or the others, but we’ve caught up to our competitors in very little time.”
According to chief business officer, healthcare Howard Courtemanche, the additions of Reichenberg and Geer accelerate the world-domination timeline forward. “I remember the phone calls with our longtime chief creative officer Richard Butt, who was retiring. ‘Wait, we can get Augé? We can get Walt? Are you kidding me?’”
For her part, Reichenberg reports that the seeds for her arrival were planted at Cannes in 2019. “A lot of the work I was voting for as a judge was coming out of VMLY&R,” she recalls. “They won my heart with their creativity.”
That creativity has manifested itself in unexpected places, such as the agency’s work for rare-disease clients. “People don’t think of it as outrageously creative, but it can be,” Courtemanche argues. Many of the company’s successes in that realm have been realized by the newly renamed VMLY&R San Francisco, formerly known as Viscira.
“We have designers over there who are Hollywood-level. Some of them come from Pixar,” Reichenberg reports.
In the months ahead, look for VMLY&R to expand its presence in Atlanta and Cambridge, Massachusetts. While Courtemanche doesn’t rule out acquisitions, he says none are imminent. “We’re just sprinkling our fairy dust in a lot of different places,” he says with a laugh. “We’re slowly but surely covering the American biopharma landscape.”
The VMLY&R team is thrilled to be doing so on behalf of an industry that, Courtemanche believes, is finally receiving the credit it deserves. “I said to my in-laws, ‘The next time you hear about drug price controls or other restrictions on the pharmaceutical industry, just think about who saved the world,’” he continues, before pivoting back to a pitch to would-be employees. “I use that when I’m talking to people outside healthcare. ‘You want to save lives? Come on in.’”
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The idea I wish I had…
Change the Ref’s Unfinished Vote is a powerful piece of work that leverages AI and deepfake technology as a catalyst for change. In 2018, 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver was killed during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Using AI, the work brings back Joaquin for a last message, which encourages viewers to vote for politicians who support gun control. The spot closes with Joaquin’s emotional request: “I mean, vote for me. Because I can’t.” When you watch it, you can’t not be moved — and not just moved emotionally, but moved to action. — Howard Courtemanche