Kristen Gengaro poured herself a big glass of wine — “white, and the sweeter the better” — and settled down on the couch in her Manhattan apartment. 

She braced herself before she clicked “open,” putting the bottle nearby. When she started reading the new employee assessments, she didn’t just cry. She sobbed.

“Our engagement scores had risen 20% between July 2020 and January 2021,” Gengaro, then in her first months as president of CDM New York. “So those gains all came against the backdrop of the pandemic and the challenges of working remotely. I could not have been more proud.”

The validation felt so rewarding that Gengaro broke her own rule about not emailing people after 6 p.m. She sent it out to her team with a simple note: “We’ve done it.”

Gengaro joined the agency in May 2020 and, nearly two years later, characterized her first few months as difficult. “What we needed to do was clear in my mind, but it felt too abstract to other people,” she acknowledges.

Then, midway through 2021, things began to move in the right direction. The COVID-19 vaccines were approved and some people started to return to the office. And the agency started to ring up client wins.

Gengaro looks back on it now with a palpable sense of relief. “While I saw the magic here early on, it had a long tail. There was a point where everyone else started to see it, too, and it’s become much easier to go where we want to go,” she says.

In the end, CDM New York saw revenue nudge upward by just under 5%, to an MM+M-estimated $136 million from 2020’s take of $130 million. The growth was spurred in part by new assignments from Merck, Janssen/Legend Biotech (on T-cell therapy Carvykti) and Teva (on a portfolio of biosimilars).

Also new to the mix is Natera, a cfDNA testing company that represents something of a departure for CDM New York. “We work with clients of all sizes, and this is a small company in the Bay Area doing very innovative work in liquid biopsies and cancer diagnostics,” Gengaro says.

Then there’s the agency’s longstanding relationship with Pfizer and its Every Color Is Primary platform, which recognizes that many of the textbooks used to train dermatologists only use images of white skin. Gengaro calls it “a beautiful campaign and a great leadership opportunity for Pfizer.”

Staff size grew slightly during 2021, from 575 full-timers at the end of 2020 to 600. As of late April, the agency was looking to fill 20 or so open positions. “In my next career, I want to come back as an oncology copywriter,” Gengaro cracks.

Key hires included chief strategy officer Chris Barbee, who previously held a similar role at Shipyard. He replaced Deepa Patel, who left for Apple. The agency also added VP, director of project management Coleen McHugh (formerly of Precisioneffect), chief experience officer Michael Austin (from GSW) and VP, director of client operations Sabrina Waldorf (from Area 23). The latter two roles are new ones at CDM New York.

Gengaro touts the chief experience officer role as particularly important. As the agency (and the business) become more focused on data, she believes Austin could serve as an analytics whisperer of sorts for hesitant clients.

“He brings this very robust omnichannel experience. Clients often still feel intimidated by data, and he demystifies it for them and makes sure their platforms are up to the challenge,” she adds.

The evolution of the experience role stems in part from CDM New York’s commitment to treating doctors as regular people, especially when it comes to their media consumption. “They shop for shoes and groceries in much the same way we do, so we should be creating more tailored, richer experiences,” Gengaro argues.

Moving forward, look for CDM New York to continue to refine its culture, positive one-glass-of-wine results notwithstanding. The goal is as much to boost retention as to differentiate the agency from its network and independently owned competitors alike.

“We have a strong preference to show rather than tell,” Gengaro stresses. By way of example, she points to a company promotion offering anyone who wants it — anyone, not just CDM New York staffers — free 30-minute resiliency coaching sessions.

“It was so effective when we offered it to our employees that we wanted to provide it more broadly, on our dime,” Gengaro explains. “We always talk about leading with our heart, so we felt it was important to put our money where our mouth is. My sincere hope is that we blow up the budget.”

That emphasis on leading-with-heart has prompted the agency to take a closer look at what it can do better for its people, especially parents and double-especially women. Like others, the company is experimenting with coaching and flexible work arrangements, as well as “trying to create softer landings for people returning from maternity leave,” Gengaro reports.

CDM New York is also going out of its way to ensure that people don’t get overlooked — a scenario that presents itself far too often in remote work settings. 

“Four times a year, we look at the number of people in a given role and their time in that position to make sure that, on every promotion cycle, no one’s being left behind,” Gengaro says. “Just because people are home and juggling work and life roles doesn’t mean they should be held back.”

To that end, CDM New York is happy to accommodate staffers who want to be in the office every day as well as those who want to depart at 3 p.m. to pick up their kids at the bus stop. Gengaro herself is maintaining a two-days-in-per-week schedule.

“As a classic introvert, I’m loving it,” she says. “But if I go in more often, people might feel like they should too, and that’s not what we want.”

Overall, her goal is to make joy the agency’s chief objective. 

“Our business isn’t for the faint of heart,” she says. “There’s the Great Resignation, the pandemic, wars. You could argue that there’s never been a more difficult time in the industry.”

Joy, she insists, helps people transcend these stressors. The company has added what Gengaro calls “joy coaching” and brought in Rebecca Newton, Ph.D., a joy expert at the London School of Economics, to speak to staff. Every Friday, the agency texts its people, asking if they experienced moments of joy that week.

“To me, that’s the biggest challenge our industry faces,” she says. “These jobs are only getting harder. How can we make this an enjoyable industry to work in?” 

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