Area 23 kicked off 2022 with a pitch for longtime client Insmed. Agency group president Renée Mellas didn’t like the firm’s chances.

While Area 23 had worked with Insmed for the past eight years on Arikayce, the company’s first and only product, Mellas had an uneasy feeling about the competitive dynamics of the situation.

“If you only have two products in your whole company, wouldn’t you want to try somebody new? Would you really want to have all your eggs in one basket?” Mellas asks.

Despite the existing relationship, Area 23 cast itself as the underdog. “We were worried about the seven-year itch,” Mellas continues. “We weren’t resting on our laurels and came in with a great presentation, but none of us were optimistic.”

You know how this ends: Area 23 learned in April that it had won the Insmed pitch, for an AOR assignment on a new product treating non-CF bronchiectasis. “To me, that’s the greatest possible indicator of client satisfaction,” Mellas adds.

Area 23 snared six other assignments during 2022, including AOR engagements with Biogen, Sage Therapeutics, UCB, Allergan Aesthetics and Sarepta Therapeutics. Meanwhile, longstanding client Daiichi Sankyo awarded the agency a piece of oncology business sans pitch.

Mellas’ longtime partner in crime, chief creative officer Tim Hawkey, is especially proud of the UCB win. Following what he characterizes as a “very competitive pitch,” Area 23 was named digital AOR for overactive bladder treatment Gemtesa.

“It showed that we can pitch and win digital AOR business,” he says. “Everybody thinks of Area 23 and creativity — and, of course, we’re all very proud of that — but we aren’t known for our digital capabilities. That’s why this was so meaningful to us.”

The client gains helped Area 23 push revenue to an MM+M-estimated $246 million. That represents a 12% jump over an estimated $220 million in 2021.

Area 23 also continued to rack up industry accolades, including Large Healthcare Agency of the Year at the 2022 MM+M Awards. Hawkey found out about another award — Area 23 was named Healthcare Agency of the Year at Cannes for the second year running — while taking a phone call inside a crêperie in France.

“It’s France, so you can just yell and scream in the streets when something like that happens. They really don’t mind,” he says with a laugh. “These wins are the shots of dopamine that keep us going.”

Upon learning the news, his first call was to Mellas. As were his second, third and fourth calls.

“My phone wasn’t in my hand,” she confesses. “My kids were like, ‘Pick up already. Tim is just going to keep blowing up your phone.’”

In addition to its client roster and the size of its trophy chest, Area 23 grew in head count during 2022. It started the year with 766 people and ended it with 831.

Key additions included EVP, executive creative director Alyssa Farquhar, who joined in July from a similar role at DDB Health. Farquhar directs professional and consumer creative for a significant portion of the agency’s rare disease, oncology and global launch brands businesses.

“I’ve been trying to hire her for years,” Hawkey notes. Mellas agrees, adding that not only does Farquhar have the required creative moxie but that she can also “go toe-to-toe with any strategist. She has the business acumen of the best account person.”

With the supposed Great Resignation in the rearview mirror, Mellas believes Area 23 is in ideal position to retain its A-list people.

“It’s all about stability seekers right now,” she explains, adding with evident pride that “no one has resigned in the last nine months.” Compare that with 2021 when, Mellas continues, “Everyone was questioning their life decisions, taking risks and exploring new things. Now, with this economy, that attitude has changed. People don’t want to make potentially risky life decisions. And because of the IPG Health network’s commitment to proactive career management, it sets us up in an advantageous position.”

Area 23 senses another industry trend working to its benefit: a renewed thirst for creative work that challenges industry conventions.

“Right now, there seems to be a huge appetite for marketing that’s a little less pharma and a little more innovative,” Mellas says. “That’s a platform that Area 23 is made for.”

By way of example, Hawkey points to news reports about recently hired Pfizer global CMO Andreas “Drew” Panayiotou, who joined the pharma giant from Verily and promptly put its $2.8 billion marketing budget into review.

“We’re seeing a real shift in marketing leadership at pharma companies,” Hawkey stresses. “More companies are bringing in outside voices, and their opinions are now being heard at the highest levels.”

Increasingly, Hawkey believes, pharma companies are demanding out-of-category thinking.

“At the heart of that is a desire not just for greater creativity, but more marketing innovation,” he continues. “Folks are looking at what the Coca-Colas, Burger Kings and Unilevers of the world have access to — and they want that for pharma.”

Mellas believes this trend can only mean good things for Area 23 and that the agency relishes the opportunity to help companies effect creative change. “We are slowly converting even the most stubborn pharma conservatives and convincing them to try new things,” she says.

Which isn’t to say that convincing clients to be more audacious in their marketing is an easy task. “You have to amass a small and ever-growing war chest of examples. When you can demonstrate that it has been done, you keep the momentum going,” Mellas adds. “Thus success begets success, and that bold creative gets you a disproportionate share of voice.”

Not surprisingly, AI is very much on Area 23’s mind as it plots out its course for 2023 and beyond. The agency has also upped its investment in its experience design and omnichannel marketing capabilities. Some of these capabilities are likely to be on display during a series of upcoming launches. 

“We have four of the top 10 most anticipated launches of 2023 in the pharma industry, and they’re all happening in the next six to eight months,” Hawkey says. “That’s a huge privilege and a huge responsibility. We have to make sure we get it right.” 

. . .

Our marketing role model…

Serena Williams. Serena wouldn’t settle for being the best women’s tennis player because she was the best in the world, period. She wanted to be the GOAT. — Mellas

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