Leadership transitions at major-league agencies are rarely tidy affairs. Especially in the web of holding companies, CEOs are more likely to be pushed than they are to leave on their own accord.

The reason for the change, of course, is never discussed publicly and the departing executive almost always shares a sentiment along the lines of “you’ll be hearing from me again soon.” But have an after-work drink with surviving members of the previous regime’s team and, well, you’ll hear some stories.

Why do we bring this up at the start of Wunderman Thompson Health’s Agency 100 profile? Because by all accounts — from internal and external sources, from the gruntled and disgruntled alike — the transition from well-regarded and even more well-liked leader Becky Chidester to new global CEO Patrick Wisnom has proceeded with uncommon grace.

The timing probably helped. WTH rolled out a succession plan in early March, informing select clients and top brass at parent company Wunderman Thompson (as well as at parent company parent WPP) that Wisnom would assume the reins from Chidester sometime in early summer.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Wisnom was a familiar figure to many WTH staffers. Previously leader, WPP global health community and global client leader, Johnson & Johnson, Wisnom was a familiar face to many employees owing to the pivotal role he played in the firm’s relationship with longstanding client Janssen.

“We’d already partnered with him in a bunch of different ways,” notes WTH chief strategy officer Michael Cole. Chidester agrees, adding, “Right away, he was a known entity. He knew us and we knew him. Everybody was comfortable.”

As for Wisnom himself, he credits Chidester and the broader WTH community for easing the transition. “People are really trusting of the agency,” he says. “They know it’s not a reactionary event; it’s a thoughtful one. They know it’s about somebody making choices for their life.”

With Chidester set to formally depart WTH within a few weeks — after which you’ll be able to reach her, or maybe not, on a sailboat somewhere between Long Island and Maine — the transition is just about complete. She leaves behind an organization that is as well-situated to thrive in today’s complicated-bordering-on-byzantine healthcare environment as any.

WTH does patient and HCP engagement. It has data, analytics, studio production and consulting services under its roofs. Its client base spans the interrelated worlds of technology, insurance, big pharma, biotech, hospital systems, devices, diagnostics and animal health. And if there’s a client demand WTH can’t sate on its own, it can always tap into the resources of its WPP siblings.

That’s a recipe for sustained success. “Existing clients see Wunderman Thompson for what we want it to be and what it is, which is the best collection of capabilities within this network and one of the best within the entire industry,” Wisnom says.

At the same time, he believes “people who are not close to us may not realize how much we have to offer.” He makes a promise: “We’re going to change that. There’s an opportunity to raise our profile with all the amazing work we’ve been doing.”

In 2021, that included successful engagements with Pfizer — WTH’s largest client, which added five brands to the agency’s charge — and new work from Regeneron, AstraZeneca and Boehringer Ingelheim. The company also added a highly coveted assignment from the Department of Health and Human Services for a COVID awareness campaign.

Cole is especially proud of the HHS work and what it says about the firm’s enterprise-wide agility. “The ability of our team to separate the signals from the noise, with all the changes in policy and focus and vaccination status, was incredible. They made those data moments really actionable.”

Financially, it was one of the company’s strongest years to date, with WTH blowing past the $200 million revenue barrier. MM+M estimates the company generated $215 million in revenue during 2021, a 27% jump over its estimated 2020 take of $169 million.

Head count rose from 700 full-timers at the end of 2020 to 890 at the end of 2021; as of mid-April, the agency had plenty of vacancies still to fill. Notable additions included managing director, WTH New York Wallye Holloway (who joined in May 2021 from TBWA\WorldHealth) and head, JAPAC James Hammond (formerly with J-Lab Asia). 

Then there was the agency’s work in the equity realm. Its Health4Equity practice grew into a core offering in 2021, owing both to a company-wide commitment of time, resources and energy and an acknowledgement that health disparities need to be treated like the systemic disease they are.

“It’s not just something that came out of being a passion product for us,” says chief medical officer and head, Health4Equity Dania Alarcon. “It was needed.”

The practice seeks to better serve underrepresented audiences and offer a more nuanced understanding of cultural biases and mistrust. “It’s not a side project,” Cole stresses. “It’s embedded in everything we do. It’s part of how brands are coming to market.” 

Not that WTH needed a sign that Health4Equity was a valuable offering, but Pfizer’s early embrace qualified. “For our largest client to ask us to be partners in this was very gratifying,” Alarcon says.

Health4Equity has had an internal impact as well. “The leadership we have is diverse — which is a story we have to tell, not a story we need to create,” Wisnom says. “I want people to come into our network and see people they can see themselves in. I want them to look up to our leaders and feel that they share lived experiences .… We want to build that latent positivity in our workforce, that this is a place people want to be.”

Look for client composition to evolve over the next year, with more companies in the genomic space and ones focused on preventative care added to the mix. The agency will also further explore the metaverse and seek to provide more (and more involved) immersive education, direct-to-patient and sales experiences.

As for the man newly installed atop the hierarchy, Wisnom is both sad to be bidding goodbye to a friend — he first bonded with Chidester years ago over a dinner in Germany, when he was leading a big chunk of the company’s GSK business — and energized by the opportunity to drive WTH’s continued ascent.

“This hasn’t been a rip-off-the-Band-Aid hard stop for me or anyone else. It’s been really fluid,” he says. “We’re ready for what’s next.”

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Work from outside pharma you admire…

Why do I love the Feel Your Best ad promoting the Lexus self-charging hybrid? Because it uses facial recognition technology to read and adapt the ad to the consumer’s emotion. Consumers are seeking authentic, uplifting content, and Lexus used an interesting platform to generate joy. Themes of optimism and unity are important to consumers. Brands that focus on those communal emotions will generate positive reactions from customers and increase engagement within their branded communities. — Becky Chidester, outgoing CEO