When Area 23 president Renée Mellas is asked about key client and brand additions during the last year, she gives a surprising response — and one that likely makes her the envy of nearly every other medical marketing shop: “Last year, we actually turned down 52 RFPs.”

Mellas lets the sum sink in for a second before she catches herself. “I hope that comes across as humble. If you’re arrogant, you accept everything and think you’re bigger than you are.”

Area 23 might’ve had to work harder than usual to remain humble after another blockbuster year. After knocking on the door in 2020, the agency crashed the $200 million barrier in 2021. It generated an MM+M-estimated $220 million in revenue, up 16% from an estimated haul of $190 million the year prior.

It did so amid a major change in its corporate structure. Last summer, Area 23 parent network FCB Health paired with sibling Interpublic-owned network McCann Health to form IPG Health, an even larger agency network with more collaborative horsepower. The new network came with additional leadership opportunities for Mellas and Area 23 creative director Tim Hawkey: In addition to Area 23 and Area 23 On Hudson, the pair now oversee FCB Health Toronto, McCann Health Toronto and McCann Health Montreal.

Uniting the networks under a single corporate shingle has provided new opportunities for interagency synergy, Mellas says. “If you look at FCB Canada, about 50% of its work is on shared clients with us, specifically on Sanofi.”

Hawkey, for his part, cites a recent Area 23, FCB Health Canada and McCann Health Canada collaboration on a Sanofi campaign as proof that the structure works. “If we were all at disparate agencies, that would never happen,” he notes. “It’d be us versus them.”

Another example of interagency collaboration in action was the network’s work on GlaxoSmithKline’s Shingrix shingles vaccine, which spanned markets across the globe: Germany, Australia, Brazil, China, Italy and France. The Area 23 team engaged with IPG Health agencies in seven countries, leaning heavily on its peers to answer questions about pharmacy and nurse dynamics in different countries.

“I love the way our positions and the network keep evolving,” Mellas says. “It allows us to bring more benefits and offerings to our clients.”

Indeed, when assessing the client landscape, Mellas notes that “‘portfolio’ and ‘franchise’ were big theme words for us last year.” Notable additions to the Area 23 roster included an Alzheimer’s disease treatment from longtime client Eli Lilly, Biogen’s MS portfolio and Sanofi’s vaccines and diabetes businesses. The agency also built on its eight-year relationship with Insmed by securing the launch for a new product treating non-CF bronchiectasis.

“We’re so proud to have worked with a company for eight years and helped them give birth to their first product — and that they want us to do it again,” Hawkey says.

2021 ended with another significant win, an Apellis Pharmaceuticals launch in ophthalmology. “The conversation started in October and by December it was our business,” Mellas recalls. “It was more like relationship-building than a pitch presentation, and it’s the single largest product in our agency right now.”

Area 23 brought in a midsize agency’s worth of staffers to manage the growth, boosting the number of full-timers from 625 at the start of 2021 to 766 at the end of it. It introduced four new SVPs/creative director teams and brought in Franklin Williams, previously an SVP at The Bloc, as EVP and director of the agency’s new experience design department.

In this role, Williams oversees a team of around 20 experience designers, user experience designers, product designers and creative technologists.

“Taking all of those disciplines and pulling them together under one vertical will give us an even better delivery of pixel-perfect digital projects,” Hawkey quips. 

The creation of this department was a major part of Area 23’s focus on digital during 2021, he adds. “In the last year, we’ve come to terms with making a significant investment. What it says is that we’re a digital-first organization.”

To that end, the omnichannel function is now headed up by SVP, group director of omnichannel strategy Alec Pollak, who previously focused on engagement strategy and customer experience innovation.

“Alec is the liaison between media, data and analytics, engagement, strategy, experience design and creative,” Hawkey continues. “He’s very in demand right now, and we’re really glad we got ahead of that capability for our clients.” New omnichannel offerings include a dynamic segmentation package that uses personalized messages to engage with HCPs through the channels most likely to move them.

While Area 23 earned plenty of creative accolades over the last year, Hawkey sees the agency’s greatest achievement as rising to the challenge that was (and is) the Great Resignation. By putting into place programs such as Area 23 Across America — 125 full-timers now call a location outside the tri-state area home — the agency was able to grow its talent pool while offering employees the flexibility they wanted, and could demand.

Hawkey hails IPG Health’s network-wide “work appropriately” model, which lets employees choose whether or not to work out of the agency’s offices. Similarly, the company has focused on proactive career management, which affords “intra-agency and inter-agency and inter-department career flexibility” within the IPG Health network, Hawkey reports.

Area 23 has reinforced its commitment to DE&I by mentoring students at D&AD Shift, a free night school for emerging creatives who lack a college degree. It also sponsors the One School, a portfolio program for Black creatives currently working outside the industry.

“It’s so great to have access to this incredible talent, and to be able to nurture these careers from the earliest stages,” Hawkey says.

All things considered, Area 23 has weathered the tumult of the last two years quite well. But as Hawkey and Mellas ponder the agency’s future, their focus is on developing the agility for whatever comes next. That includes preparing for the metaverse, in which the company sees plenty of potential for healthcare organizations and their brands. It’s not wasting any time: The agency is already offering clients metaverse consultations.

Beyond that, Hawkey plays it coy.

“What’s next for Area 23? It’s the thing which does not exist yet, whether it’s breaking into technology, doing the first meaningful thing in the metaverse or applying AI in the craziest way that creates incredible returns for our clients,” he says.

. . .

Work from outside pharma you admire…

My favorite work is The Battle Inside by Cheil Spain for the CRIS Cancer Foundation. This is a Doom mod that essentially reimagines the classic first-person-shooter game with blood cancer as the enemy. You can tell that this took at least a year to put together, because the attention to detail is stunning. We’ve all talked about doing gaming mods to reflect a disease state, but these folks really did it. — Hawkey