When private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice acquired Evoke parent Huntsworth in May 2020, leaders at both companies all but made a guarantee: There’s more where this came from. Huntsworth subsequently snapped up Nucleus Global in November 2020, while CD&R bought Ashfield Health parent UDG Healthcare in May 2021.

With so many prized holdings under the CD&R aegis, it seemed inevitable that the firm would move to align them more effectively. And so it was that, late last year, Evoke CEO and founder Reid Connolly and Ashfield Health leader Amar Urhekar broke bread together for the first time. On the agenda was the possibility of uniting the two midsize health marketing networks into a single all-encompassing entity.

Connolly came away from the sit-down impressed. “This is a vast multibillion-dollar industry but also a small and incestuous industry,” he says. “So the idea of bringing together all this talent and all these incredibly well-regarded agency brands across the marketing and creative and media and digital and access space — it’s hard to not get excited about something like that …. You could feel the energy and excitement across the entire leadership team.”

Urhekar had a similar reaction. “I didn’t know Reid personally, but I knew of him and of the great work Evoke has done as a digital-first agency,” he recalls. “Right away it felt like it would put rocket fuel into our way of doing things. It was clear that this would be a classic one-plus-one-equals-five-or-six-or-seven situation.”

There was also personal kinship between the leaders of the two organizations, Urhekar adds: “I remember thinking, ‘These are good people who want to do good business.’ There were no assholes in the room.”

The conversations quickly intensified and, by early 2022, Evoke and Ashfield had already started to operate as a united organization. The decision was made to formally unite the two networks under the Evoke banner and the merged company started working on the mechanics of the union — IT, conflicts, finances and the like.

The goal was to share the plan internally and with clients before trumpeting it to the larger healthcare marketing universe (which came to pass during the first week of June). However, given the timing of the deal, Connolly and Urhekar thought it wise to proceed deliberately. After all, employees had just spent two years dealing with COVID and its disorienting influence on company culture. It seemed almost cruel to effect another whiplash change in the wake of so many others.

Rather than announce the news via a  company-wide electronic dispatch, Connolly hit the road for a series of all-hands meetings at Ashfield and Evoke offices. During them, he sought to allay fears about the merger process and, especially, sell the increased slate of opportunities for employees of the unified organization.

“It was about assuring people we’d balance and respect the individual cultures and find the commonalities that will unite the entire organization,” Connolly says. “And it was about showing them that there would be more avenues for growth in their own careers.” One common refrain: “We got a lot of, ‘Can I bring this agency or this service to my client tomorrow?’”

In a nutshell, that’s why the Evoke and Ashfield merger is unlike most other megadeals the industry has seen. It’s a marriage of equals; it’s not a big fish swallowing a smaller one whole.

Also, the parts fit: The company can pair digital, media and access chops from legacy Evoke agencies with Ashfield’s behavioral science and rare disease muscle. Given that the companies already work with nearly every top-20 pharma company — the roster includes engagements with Bristol Myers Squibb, Sanofi, Pfizer, Novartis, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and GSK, among others — there’s likely a wealth of opportunity for organic growth.

It’s tricky to make apples-to-apples revenue comparisons, but Evoke ($168.2 million) and the three Ashfield firms featured in last year’s MM+M Agency 100 generated $264 million during 2020. In 2021, the merged organization brought in $304.4 million, which amounts to roughly 15% year-over-year growth. Evoke and the Ashfield firms started 2021 with 1,123 full-timers on hand and ended it with 1,304.

Key additions included chief growth officer Eric Daly (from Klick Health); chief creative officer, North America Rachel McCready (also from Klick); chief data officer Jamie Avallone (from Consulting at McCann Health); chief innovation officer Will Reese (from Benchworks); and chief strategy officer, North America Alexis Penty (from The Bloc). Urhekar’s title becomes group president, marketing.

Meanwhile, with the exception of Ashfield MedComms, all Ashfield legacy brands have been merged into Evoke. They’ve officially been recast as Evoke MicroMass, Evoke Mind+Matter, Evoke Galliard, Evoke Incisive Health, Evoke Canale and Evoke Create.

The merged organization didn’t give much thought to eliminating any of the Ashfield agencies or subsuming them into other Evoke units. “Certainly clients have affinities toward certain agencies and agency brands, but it’s more important on the people side,” Connolly says. “We all have an emotional connection to our brands, whether we started an agency or worked at an agency.”

The key, he adds, is to find the balance between retaining existing agency brand equity and ensuring that the brands become an important part of a larger whole. “In the best-case scenario, we all feel that we’re part of something bigger.”

Urhekar agrees, adding that the agency business “is tribal in a certain way. There are behaviors and cultures … it’s a fine balancing act to make sure what those brands stand for is maintained.”

Which isn’t to say the company won’t continue to evaluate its internal landscape. “At some point, you have to be open to making those decisions,” Urhekar continues. “But it’s an iterative process. Right now, yes, the branding architecture will remain.”

As for what comes next, it’s safe to say that both Connolly and Urhekar see limitless potential for Evoke — and especially its people and client partners. 

“We want to rewrite the chapter on how an agency can operate and succeed in these challenging times,” Urhekar says. 

Connolly nods, then adds, “It’s too soon to be making predictions, but it’s gonna be a good story. I know that much.” 

. . .

Work from outside pharma you admire…

I’m incredibly inspired by music-driven ideas, which can impact culture and behavior like nothing else. So I’d have to say Australia’s “Dumb Ways to Die” for Metro Trains is a giant envy-inducer. The charming, goofy song and animated video were an instant hit, and became the “world’s most-shared public service campaign” when it came out 10 years ago. I can only imagine what it would have done if released in today’s TikTok era. — Rachel McCready, chief creative officer, North America