Like a new Hollywood power couple, midsize health marketing networks Evoke and Ashfield Health declared themselves ready for their closeup last summer. The post-merger unification under the Evoke banner spawned one of the industry’s most comprehensive service offerings.
The backstory, months in the making, is equally eyebrow-raising.
“We spent a lot of time behind the scenes, before we announced things publicly, to do things the right way,” recalls Evoke CEO and founder Reid Connolly.
Evoke parent Huntsworth Health and Ashfield parent UDG Healthcare had both been acquired by private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (in 2020 and 2021, respectively). Early on, Connolly and his Ashfield counterpart Amar Urhekar — who left the organization in March — set about instilling an integration mindset across a sprawling, 1,200-strong workforce.
Management also took the time to ensure that the newly merged organization was, in Connolly’s words, “unlike anything else in the marketplace” (read: distinguishable from holding-company-owned competitors). While that’s no easy task for an organization spread out across eight North American offices with myriad specialty agencies and practices, Connolly and team have endeavored to pull it off.
Its approach starts, as so many other corporate-level changes do, with the lexicon. When describing their organization, Evoke leaders employ the term “platform” rather than “network.”
“There’s a real difference,” Connolly insists. “What we try to do is design the Evoke platform around our customers and our people, and make sure we remove the friction points that clients and our talent experience with the big networks.”
Meanwhile, the choice to operate under a single P&L helps direct clients toward the organization’s most appropriate tools: talent and technology. “They deal with one P&L, which ensures talent mobility,” Connolly explains. “People can work seamlessly. Their careers are not limited by agency fiefdoms.”
In any event, the Ashfield merger was simultaneously the biggest challenge and grandest achievement of Evoke’s 2022. “No matter how well you manage it, bringing organizations together, by nature, requires a significant amount of change,” says Connolly. “But people felt great about it — like they’re being taken care of, that this is a great place to grow.”
The effort paid off in other ways. Evoke’s first full year as a merged company brought double-digit growth in terms of revenue and people. Billings rose 16.5% to $368 million in 2022, versus $316 million in combined Evoke/Ashfield revenue the year prior. Head count increased 16.3%, growing to 1,432 from 1,231 at the end of 2021.
Evoke’s first few post-merger people moves were telling in terms of the organization’s future priorities — especially the hiring of chief data officer Jamie Avallone, formerly physician research director at Manhattan Research. Avallone has since stood up a number of proprietary data products to support the Evoke platform and help clients activate commercial initiatives.
Next came former Real Chemistry personnel chief Jonathan Robbins, who was tapped as managing director, talent acquisition. “As we built out the organization and the platform, we didn’t just want to merge the old talent acquisition groups from the two halves,” Connolly explains. “Even the best talent acquisition capability in the industry prior to the merger was designed for pre-pandemic times, so we wanted to build something new for the talent base of today.”
Robbins’ team has been busy on that front, upping both the quantity and quality of Evoke’s people. A particular point of pride is the company’s ongoing effort to increase the diversity of its staff: Evoke saw a 70% boost in its non-white employee population last year.
“Our overall investment the last two years in DE&I has been extremely well received by our talent base,” Con-
Evoke also renewed its focus on employee engagement and talent mobility. Staffers, Connolly stresses, should have the ability to advance in their careers without worrying about silos.
Removing friction for talent has benefits on the client side as well. Enter Evoke’s new chief client officer, Cheryl Fielding, who joined in May 2023 from Havas Health & You, where she served as group president. Fielding has been tasked with overseeing Evoke’s strategic account management team and client services capability, as well as ensuring a consistent and integrated experience across the platform.
Former Initiative managing director Katie McCarthy joined Evoke as media president shortly thereafter. McCarthy should further bolster the agency’s ability to offer clients integrated and data-driven media and creative.
Evoke has deep roots in digital and data, and its evolution over the years — both organically and through acquisition — positions it well for what’s next, especially given the importance of omnichannel and customer experience. That skate-where-the-puck-is-going approach to growth continued with the June 2022 acquisition of digital life science agency Meltmedia, which was recast as Evoke Melt. The company then snapped up innovation consultancy Evolution Road in December.
“We’ve been advocates and evangelists of digital from our founding of the agency almost 17 years ago,” Connolly notes.
The agency’s work of late reflects that heritage. Strip On 2.0, a campaign on behalf of Foundation Consumer Brands’ Breathe Right nasal strips, leverages addressable TV and data-driven linear to plan video placements. Creative for the Be Flare Aware DTC effort for AstraZeneca features real COPD patients telling their stories across multiple channels.
As for what comes next, Connolly points to clinical trial marketing as one of the fastest-growing parts of Evoke’s business. Not surprisingly, the agency approaches the task by leaning on digital tactics and data-driven insights.
“For so long, there was a disconnect between commercial and clinical trial organizations, often for legitimate reasons,” Connolly explains. “But that has left a void.”
He believes that there is untapped potential in bridging the divide via tactics that are tried and tested in the commercial space, such as programmatic media buying. He sees “a ton of upside” to such work.
“Many pharma companies have been talking about digital transformation in their annual reports for years, but only since the pandemic have many of them taken it seriously,” he explains. “You’re seeing it become one of the most significant unmet needs and challenges for many pharma and biotech companies across their commercial and medical affairs organizations — and we’re uniquely suited to take advantage of that.”
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Our marketing role model…
Taj Alavi, VP and global head of marketing at Spotify, because few marketers can match the brand experience she brings to her customers. While Spotify operates across 180 global markets and has 515 million monthly users, Alavi’s team ensures everyone has an experience that’s bespoke to their lives. Alavi leverages more than 100 billion data points generated daily to evolve the platform, making it smarter, more personalized and, ultimately, more adherent to its users’ lives. Her efforts also go beyond streaming, extending the platform as a collaboration hub for artists and content creators. — Connolly