Virtual town halls have become a staple of agency life. But for Syneos Health head of strategy Maria Tender, one such event last July became her favorite moment of the year.

Tender wasn’t expecting any surprises when she logged in from her home in White Plains, New York. The plan was to play a video featuring some recent work, which she had already seen. Still, watching the film, which showcased a campaign demanding equity for Black women with breast cancer, hit her hard.

“This was right as we were introducing our Heart of Health platform, which helps people here realize we are part of something much bigger,” Tender recalls. The pairing of the video with real-time feedback from colleagues in the U.K., France and North Carolina brought home to her the scope and importance of what Syneos is doing.

“What makes us different is that we are not just a commercial organization, but a clinical one,” Tender adds.

To president, communications Tim Pantello, it’s all about sparking change of the kind featured in the video. Among the factors that he believes distinguishes Syneos from the competition is the ongoing information it receives from AnswerSuite, the agency’s 30-year-old monthly panel of some 11,000 providers. 

“It gives us very objective information in a very subjective world,” he says.

And because Syneos shares much of that data for free as part of its thought-leadership efforts, “There’s an inherent altruism here,” Tender notes. “It doesn’t get talked about much. It’s just there, under so much of what we do.”

Revenue rose 2% in 2021 to an MM+M-estimated $266 million from 2020’s estimated $260 million. Although the firm’s parent company is publicly traded, it doesn’t break out numbers for Syneos Health. The larger organization reported $5.21 billion in revenue for 2021, an 18% gain from the prior year. Net income climbed 22% to $234.1 million.

The agency reports that it added 175 accounts during 2021. Clients served by the organization’s myriad ad, PR and marketing firms include a host of pharma giants, ranging from Pfizer and Merck to Novo Nordisk and Sanofi.

Syneos Health’s staff size grew in turn, from 938 at the end of 2020 to 996 a year later. New additions included EVP, executive creative director Astrid Defries Lansing, who arrived from Havas Health & You; EVP, brand strategy Suzanne Goss, from Unified Oncology/WildType; EVP, executive creative director John Reid, from McCann Health; and GSW East president Andrew Schirmer, from Ogilvy Health.

Syneos also promoted a handful of its own A-listers into new roles. They included Sharon Gordon, now SVP of social impact; Fran De Sena, SVP of influencer marketing; Laurie Marino, VP, content strategy; and James Ruiz and Peter von Bartheld, both SVP, customer experience.

“Onboarding so many new people in this environment and reconnecting with others has been both challenging and awesome,” Pantello says.

At the same time, the agency took pains to ensure that staff changes addressed the shifting needs of clients, including the rising importance of environment/social/governance- and DE&I-related issues.

“The world has evolved and so have clients’ communication needs. That’s not just at the corporate level, but also at the brand, portfolio and even category level,” Pantello explains. “These are now critical issues of corporate reputation, as is pricing.”

Tender is equally mindful of the need to build an agency better able to deliver motivating experiences. “Our starting point is that all brand challenges are really behavior change challenges,” she says. “We look to create motivation — but for that to manifest itself in the market, you have to create motivational experiences.”

Content, of course, remains an important part of the Syneos approach. “We put rigor into that, making sure each content pillar is part of the experience strategy. It’s not just, ‘Well, our customers have a journey and here’s some media they can interact with,’” Tender continues. “When content meets context, they come together to create the most seamless, frictionless experiences for people.”

It goes without saying that every step of this experience strategy is informed by data — which, in Syneos’ world, means a healthy dose of AnswerSuite.

“A lot of agencies will say they’ve spoken to a handful of physicians, but we’re not guessing. We’ve got people in the field touching this customer every day,” Pantello stresses.

To that end, a similar initiative is taking a close look at 15 different medical specialties in 17 therapeutic areas. 

“Physicians are human beings and this research is meant to understand their motivational style,” Pantello continues. “How do we catalog their mindset? What are the drivers of behavior, irrespective of what might be happening?”

The data set should also give Syneos a better vantage point to the reality of healthcare trends. For instance, telehealth accounted for just about 2% of visits before the pandemic, then rose to 17%. With pandemic restrictions mostly lifted, it has been hovering around 7% of visits for the last two quarters. 

“We even know how that differs regionally,” Pantello says. “So when clients are thinking about deploying communications, campaigns or reps in various areas, even as this new variant spikes in many states, we can show them how to pivot in real time and in an agile way.”

All these changes are “designed around clients’ needs, meeting people where they are, with the ability to provide strategy, confidence and counsel. Then we keep looking to increase our ability to execute that content into experiences that move people, motivating them to change their behavior. That is what we are all in service to,” Pantello says.

That goes for internal efforts as well. Pantello is proud of bringing in outside voices, such as positive psychology expert Shawn Archer, to address the Syneos Health staff.

This, in his mind, further sets Syneos Health apart from the many others in adland, especially ones under the umbrella of what he likes to call the “not-works.” 

Those groups are “focused on selling cars or soda or credit cards, while our whole organization is about healthcare. It’s designed with a different intent, focus and depth of understanding of both the customer and the healthcare landscape,” Pantello says.

That matters deeply, he adds, “Since healthcare is more complex than just about any other industry.” 

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Work from outside pharma you admire…

I love Airbnb’s Bonnie & Clyde, featuring the Jay-Z song with the “me and my girlfriend” lyrics. It’s so simple. The combination of the older couple and a younger song really show what Airbnb represents. It’s simple, but
also profound. — Tender