VMLY&R Health CEO Claire Gillis is based overseas, but gets to the U.S. once every two or three weeks. While strolling through NYC’s Times Square during a visit last year, she looked up and, much to her delight and amazement, saw her company’s work for Pfizer-BioNTech’s Comirnaty COVID-19 vaccine on the Jumbotron above.
“When you work for an advertising agency, you’re used to seeing Coke or Ford or whatever else in those places,” she says. “It just doesn’t happen in health.”
But then it did, again: Pfizer engineered a takeover in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, putting VMLY&R Health’s artistry on display for an even vaster audience. “It doesn’t get much more pinnacle than that,” notes chief client officer and North America lead Jason Gloye.
To co-opt Gloye’s verbiage, 2022 was a pinnacle kind of year for VMLY&R Health. The agency grew revenue by 23%, from $204 million in 2021 to $249.9 million in 2022. To put the company’s recent gains in perspective, in 2020 VMLY&R generated $112 million. That means it has more than doubled its revenue — off a nine-figure base, no less —in two years.
The growth came from clients old and new. The firm enjoys expansive relationships with Pfizer, Emergent BioSciences, Gilead, AstraZeneca, Abbott, Walgreens Boots Alliance and Genentech.
“Maybe we pitched too much last year — but we had a great win rate, so maybe we didn’t,” Gloye jokes. He notes, however, that VMLY&R Health has slowed the pitching pace somewhat in 2023: “The best thing about it was that we got to see so many different players, plus we got smarter about how we pair people.”
Gillis believes that skill/personality alchemy has everything to do with VMLY&R Health’s recent run of good fortune. The firm added 103 full-time people during 2022, raising its head count to 860, many of whom came from outside the incestuous world of medical marketing agencies. It was also able to tap into the talents of its WPP sibling firms on an as-needed basis.
“When you bring people who don’t work in health into the health discussion, what you get is magic,” Gillis says. “They challenge your assumptions, and you’re able to cherry-pick the things they would do for a big consumer brand and apply them in a way that works for health.”
Gloye agrees, adding, “There were lots of hand-raisers from outside health, but you have to be willing to come in and sponge health up. You can’t do it casually.”
By way of example, Gloye points to, well, himself: “For me it happened accidentally, and it was a joy. People who have not known health, now they love health. They think we’re sharp and funny.”
Notable additions in recent months include global chief operations officer Matt Hyde, who slid over from VMLY&R Commerce, and executive director Rebecca Greenberg, who arrived from Harrison & Star. The firm also elevated two of its own: Jen Levin became executive director, client engagement, while Jenni Heath became global managing director, employee experience.
Gillis touts the immediate effect Hyde has had on the company’s day-to-day operations. “He liberated us from looking at the infrastructure bits,” she says. “Our expertise is being client-focused and client-facing. Do I want to be looking through the P&L or travel budget? I can do it, but it’s better that we stick to our knitting.”
Gloye, on the other hand, says that Greenberg has filled an important gap in the company’s executive hierarchy. “Her background in public health and her strong scientific backbone — there aren’t too many people who do what Rebecca does,” he notes.
VMLY&R Health has also benefited from the low wall that separates its operations from those of the consumer-
oriented VMLY&R mothership.
“At other agencies, health is its own thing. They don’t think they know enough, or maybe the people doing health want to stay in their own lane,” Gloye says. “Here, we’re very much integrated into the totality of VMLY&R. Our most celebrated work sandwiches together health experience and consumer expertise.”
Gillis agrees, noting that the company’s structure allows ideas to flow freely. “Creative doesn’t sit in its own little vacuum. There are a number of different stakeholders on that journey — strategy, deployment, medical consulting. We may only have been employed to do a campaign, but we bring in everyone else to make sure the outcome is beautiful.”
Gillis and Gloye believe so strongly in VMLY&R Health’s creative mission that they’ve done the borderline unthinkable: sought to make converts out of the agency’s A-list clients.
In Cormirnaty’s wake, there’s no bigger client than Pfizer. Still, the vaccine assignment tested the mettle of both organizations.
To begin with, time was tight. Also, given that there were approximately zero medical marketing agencies in operation at the time of the 1918 flu pandemic, there wasn’t any playbook for the type of promotional and educational effort with which VMLY&R Health was entrusted.
The agency decided to act aggressively, in part because it didn’t have much choice. “We pushed Pfizer to think a little differently about how its company works and how it approves work,” Gloye recalls. “It wasn’t like, ‘Do this now!’ It was working to get that better quality creative out there as soon as we could.”
Speaking broadly and not about the Comirnaty effort, Gillis says that VMLY&R Health views ushering historically wary pharma clients into the world of modern marketing as a responsibility.
“You’ve heard it before — the industry has so many restraints. We know this,” she explains. “What we’ve tried to do is take the best of what goes on outside health and bring it in, then convince our pharma clients that it’s safe to innovate …. They like to trot along in existing guidelines, so it’s our job to show them that innovation is actually all right.”
Gloye believes that mission is easier now that the pandemic is fading in the rearview mirror.
“Post-COVID, people in this business suddenly realized that they can shout about the work they do, and the general public won’t say, ‘Oh, do we really need pharma?’” he explains. “Health rose to the top of the popularity list. It was in the zeitgeist. So it’s on us to put the opportunities in front of pharma and say, ‘Here’s what you can do.’”
In other words, don’t look for VMLY&R Health to course-adjust anytime soon. Gloye knows that, after the last two years, the agency won’t enter too many pitch derbies as a dark horse. That’s why he wants to see the company continue to focus on desired business outcomes.
“Certain entities are a flavor — but the flavor should be what the business needs, not our flavor,” he explains. “We can bring a different flavor every time.”
As for Gillis, she hopes that VMLY&R receives its due for the successes of the past two years.
“I need to go up a level in MM+M’s rankings,” she says with a big laugh. “I want us to be famous for work that creates real impact in health. I want people to know our name.”
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