Real Chemistry’s leaders are well familiar with the buy-and-build style of growth. The company has absorbed about a dozen other organizations since the start of the pandemic, the most recent of which was AI shop Conversation Health in April. 

Thanks in large part to acquisitions, Real Chemistry saw revenue more than double over the last two years. The business grew 35% last year, becoming a sprawling $439 million entity in the process. In 2020, the company brought in $324 million.

Let’s recap: Conversation Health, along with 2021 acquisitions Swoop and, filled out the company’s machine learning skill set. Brought into the fold in 2020 were creative shop 21Grams, influencer firm Starpower and social media analytics outfit Symplur.

The organization then rebranded itself last year to reflect this alchemy of talents, disciplines and technologies.

Then again, Real Chemistry does not aspire to be the “bulk player in the space,” as former CEO Jim Weiss put it in a prior interview. Weiss, who handed the leadership reins to new chief executive Shankar Narayanan late last year and now serves as chairman, wants Real Chemistry to be thought of as a nimble, efficient and transformative partner to clients. 

That has demanded a thoughtful approach to infrastructure and culture. The process continued in the spring with a restructuring into three business units: integrated marketing communications, commercialization and data and AI solutions.

“A high-growth company needs to keep moving with the changes,” explains global president Jennifer Gottlieb. “With all of the acquisitions, we realized not only did we need to create Real Chemistry, but we also needed to organize like objects together, based on who the buyer is and who we’re servicing.” 

If the reorg was designed to make it more efficient for clients to access Real Chemistry’s gamut of services, then Narayanan, a healthcare veteran with a long track record in consulting, is tasked with uniting the multiple integrated capabilities to unlock more growth. 

“Real Chemistry has this incredible trifecta of capabilities: communications, marketing and data/analytics,” he said in December. “To me, those capabilities are converging at this time, and that’s what clients want the most.”

Last year those pieces connected well, with the company launching a number of campaigns that, it says, wouldn’t have happened without AI-powered insights. 

“The creative activations that come out of the data analysis is significantly different from anything we have ever seen in health,” says group president, advertising Wendy Levine.

One of these was an experiential campaign for AstraZeneca, executed during a time when news surrounding the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines had largely drowned out the need for flu vaccination. It wanted to draw parents back in.

“Looking at the audience, they needed to understand how the germs were traveling,” recalls chief creative officer Frank Mazzola. “So we created a theater experience, an outdoor interactive experience and a film that brought the idea of flu together with the reasons you should get your child the flu vaccine.”

The film featured a sneezing protagonist, literally felt by cinema-goers. Several sneezing people planted strategically throughout the theater enhanced the experiential element for audiences.

The campaign ran over a one-month period in Manchester, which had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.K., and Real Chemistry execs say about a quarter of the city engaged.

Real Chemistry

On the HCP side, another case study shows how the company reimagined the common mechanism of action assignment as an experience. The Skin City campaign for Dermavant was designed to help dermatologists grasp the various elements of a new psoriasis MOA, specifically the role of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR). 

Ahead of the launch of Dermavant’s AhR-modulating agent, Real Chemistry organized an immersive event in Las Vegas for about 100 KOLs that featured a theatrical performance, branded content and scientific education. 

Accounts added ranged from new-to-healthcare clients (such as Amazon Care) to biotechs (Day One Biopharma) and med-techs (Dexcom). Organic growth came from client mainstays such as Johnson & Johnson, Genentech and Pfizer.

Then there’s Real Chemistry’s pro bono work. In association with the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative, the company pitched in on an omnichannel campaign that enlisted KOLs to educate HCPs about the COVID-19 vaccines. It also worked with the Black Coalition Against COVID to launch BCAC’s Love Letter to Black America through a video that featured the voices of Black doctors and nurses providing information on the virus and vaccines.

Finally, Real Chemistry launched three new practices. Mary Stutts, hired in June 2020 from Stanford Healthcare, leads global inclusion and health equity. The other two are corporate pricing and public affairs, and value and access. 

Acquisitions and hiring have strengthened the leadership ranks, powering the company’s full-time North American staff count to 1,627, up from 1,350 at the end of 2020. After hand-picking his successor, Weiss took an executive adviser position with Real Chemistry’s private-equity backer, New Mountain Capital. Elsewhere, Kevin Johnson was promoted in June 2020 to chief integration officer and Mary Corcoran was promoted in January to chief client officer. 

Management envisions the data and analytics brain power Real Chemistry has amassed over the last two years fueling the future of the business. 

“If you think about what these groups do, we are answering the question, ‘Who are my ideal patients and my ideal HCPs?’” says Ron Elwell, who oversees the company’s data unit. That insight is then used to generate what Elwell calls “differential messaging” that has a better chance of resonating — or uncovering the perfect person to deliver those messages. 

Take the DTC campaign House Rules, which involved helping client Evofem Biosciences break into the crowded birth control space. The pop culture strategists at Starpower were tapped to find the right influencer, who turned out to be Emmy-nominated actress Annie Murphy of Schitt’s Creek fame. 

“She was the perfect spokesperson for the age group we were trying to reach, especially on social media,” Johnson recalls. To that point, Instagram posts with Murphy generated some 57,000 likes and a 17.6% engagement rate.

While Real Chemistry now works with 24 of the top 25 pharma companies, Gottlieb stresses the importance of specialty pharma and commercialized biotech to ongoing growth. 

The organization, she stresses, is wary of straying too far from its San Francisco biotech roots. “We never want to get big enough where we don’t service the innovative clients.” 

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Work from outside pharma you admire…

KFC consistently does two things really well. First, it makes campaign-bending work. The Colonel changes, the format changes, the line changes (as when it borrowed other brands’ taglines last year) … but the strategy and voice stay constant. Second, KFC is unafraid to fail, such as when it ran out of chicken and issued the best apology ever: “FCK.” It’s hard for a healthcare brand to be fallible, because there’s more at stake. But health is personal — and healthcare brands should feel more personal. — Lauren Pollina, executive creative director, 21Grams