Shankar Narayanan had been serving as Real Chemistry’s CEO for just a few months when he announced a revamp of the company’s organizational structure and gathered the newly reconfigured team for an offsite session in New York. While the discussion started briskly, it soon slowed to a near halt, eventually pushing past the three-hour mark.

“We kept asking, ‘Where is all this going? What is this agency becoming?’” he recalls. “We were there for a new idea and hadn’t landed on it yet.”

And then the session facilitator noticed Ron Elwell, Real Chemistry’s head, data and AI solutions, sitting in the middle of the room. An epiphany ensued.

“The facilitator pointed at Ron and said, ‘That’s it right there. AI has to be in the middle of everything,’” Narayanan adds.

That April 2022 realization, he believes, was precisely what the Real Chemistry team needed to hatch its newest approach: AI + Ideas, which has since become “the organizing principle for the entire agency,” he says. “AI has become the glue. It makes our communications more insightful and our creative more powerful.”

Real Chemistry reports that the tweak in its approach turbocharged the company’s growth in 2022. Revenue increased 18%, to $514 million from $436 million in 2021.

“Crossing the half-billion threshold was an important milestone,” Narayanan says, noting that 2022 marked the company’s 21st consecutive year of double-digit growth.

Much of that growth came from 66 new assignments, including additional work from Galderma, Pfizer, Takeda, GSK and Novartis. The company also added engagements with Better Therapeutics, Cutera, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Everlywell, Matternet and Shield Therapeutics to its list of jobs.

With the new work came new people. Real Chemistry saw staff size rise from 1,635 people at the start of the year to 1,702 at its conclusion. Among the notable additions was chief commercial officer William Martino, who arrived from Evoke in January.

While Martino is still taking in the way Real Chemistry combines big-agency heft with independent-minded entrepreneurship, he’s impressed by the company-wide embrace of AI.

“It’s in everybody’s hands,” he notes. “It pulls through the business. Everybody sees it, touches it and feels it. It allows us to innovate around client needs.”

By way of example, Elwell points to an exchange with one of Real Chemistry’s on-staff engineers.  The individual was curious about a relative who had been prescribed a heart medication by a general practitioner, so Elwell used AI to determine how many specialist medications are prescribed by general practitioners.

In short order, the engineer had an answer to the question. “We now know exactly how many more oncology prescriptions are written by GPs than by oncologists,” Elwell says. “That’s opening up the universe, especially when there is such a shortage of specialists.”

Elwell spent much of 2022 working to make Real Chemistry’s trove of data more manageable. “At this point, we have about 50 billion data points, right down to whom people follow on Twitter and what they like on Instagram. Frankly, it’s overwhelming,” he says. “We’ve now put an AI layer on top, so everyone who works here can use a simple English language interface to ask for what they need.”

Group president, commercial and medical solutions Wendy Levine hails the approach.

“It allows us to activate our audiences in a way we’ve never been able to before, and it yields better results for our clients,” she reports. “The shift from general campaigns to more personalized, channel-specific activations has led to more meaningful interactions. People want to see these ads, versus feeling like they’re an interruption.”

The approach paid dividends for client Dermavant. Within eight weeks of launch, the company’s Vtama topical cream for adult plaque psoriasis had left the competition in the dust, Real Chemistry reports.

Of course, Real Chemistry found plenty of time during 2022 to flash its creative chops. Global chief creative officer Frank Mazzola believes that, indeed, the entire healthcare category has raised its creative game in recent years. He has even coined a name for the phenomenon: the Brussels Sprout Effect.

“In 2008, Brussels sprouts were considered the most hated vegetable in America. Now people are trying new varieties and roasting them instead of boiling them. They even turn up as appetizers at fancy weddings,” Mazzola explains. “Healthcare is our industry’s Brussels sprout.”

The work he’s most proud of — notably Under a Rock, which touts AstraZeneca’s hyperkalemia drug Lokelma — reflects that change. The campaign channels a 1960s vibe to show the desperate need for modern treatment.

Then there’s Un-Ironic, a campaign for Shield Therapeutics’ Accrufer, which addresses the dilemma that iron medications often make people feel sicker than the iron deficiency itself. “We wanted consumers to experience irony at every turn,” Mazzola says. “You don’t see many guerilla pharma campaigns.”

Mazzola also touts an effort created on behalf of AstraZeneca’s flu vaccines that dramatizes the spread of flu germs among children in the U.K. It’s as mesmerizing as it is revolting: UV ink on kids’ noses shows how the snot-propelled germs spread so dramatically.

In short, Real Chemistry believes that its recent performance and the capabilities under its many roofs speak for themselves.

“We’ve built a company by delivering on what our clients say they don’t have,” says global president, chief client officer Jennifer Gottlieb. “We’ve got data and AI and analytics. We service products from the bench to the bedside; we get in very early and then stay with clients for a very long time, so long that we’re available to help products once they need an extra push at the end of their life cycles. No matter what stage they’re in, our No. 1 priority is bringing all of these pieces together for the most customized and curated solutions.”

As pharma companies look for smarter and more efficient ways to work with their marketing and technology partners, Martino believes Real Chemistry’s whole-package positioning will pay off in the form of more business.

“Agency relationships have to get simpler,” he stresses. “We’re seeing that the innovation is coming from the middle of the market: biotech startups, the first commercial companies selling gene therapies. Agencies with many solutions under one roof are more interesting to them because their commercial organizations are less mature. They need to be smart with their decision-making until they can make money.”

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Our marketing role model…

We often talk about Tesla and how it disrupted the automotive industry as a “why not us?” role model in health. We go back to its mission: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Rather than do what its own industry is doing, but better, Tesla has rethought the impact it can and will have. — Mazzola

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