Real Chemistry grew exponentially in 2022, crossing the half-billion-dollar threshold in revenue. In 2023, it pushed that sum even higher, growing more than 6% — to $608 million, from $572 million the previous year — on the heels of a new-business growth spurt and a pair of acquisitions.

The deals brought full-service med-comms shop Avant Healthcare (and its 260 or so full-timers) and data/predictive analytics specialist TI Health under Real Chemistry’s roof, with TI joining the company’s burgeoning AI unit Swoop.

Staff size increased with the additions, not surprisingly. Real Chemistry ended 2023 with 2,110 full-timers in its ranks, up from 1,932 at the start of the year. But the deals had the effect of making a company that was already a top destination for marketers and technologists even more of one.

A trio of former Avant executives headlined the list of additions, with former chief CX officer, Avant Healthcare Marketing Trina Stonner becoming global group president, medical; chief CX officer, Avant Healthcare Solutions Todd Wright becoming chief commercial officer, medical; and chief CX officer, AOR and creative Patrick Kelley becoming chief creative officer, medical.

“They’re already a critical piece of our team,” notes chief marketing officer Aaron Strout.

Real Chemistry creative sample

Other key hires came from all parts of the pharma and healthcare ecosystem. They included chief client officer, integrated communications Rachi Govil, who joined from BCW Global; president of medical education, 21Grams Javeria Shahab, from Lockwood; group president, advertising, 21Grams Kat Piscatelli, from VMLY&R Health; VP, diversity, equity and inclusion Nathalie Cordeiro Nunes, from Sinai Chicago; and practice leader, paid media Eric Solomon, from Publicis Health Media.

Govil believes that Real Chemistry’s people are its greatest differentiator and that few other organizations can assemble such high-level, multi-capacity, multifunctional teams. Piscatelli offers a related take, noting that Real Chemistry “has a startup mentality, but the infrastructure of a very large collaborative.”

CEO Shankar Narayanan acknowledges that 2023 presented some challenges — particularly in the biotech sector, where funding sources ran dry. But he reports that Real Chemistry still managed to achieve “industry-leading growth” within its universe. He attributes the company’s sustained rise to continual investment across its many offerings.

“Over the past four or five years, we have made some very purposeful investments, both on the AI side with Swoop and on the ideas side with 21Grams,” he explains.

Narayanan points out that during the pandemic, the ability to reach individual stakeholders — whether patients, providers, caregivers or advocates — became a must-have capability for medical marketers. “We enable that by providing the combination of data to precisely understand the stakeholders, the technology to precisely reach them and the capability to keep them engaged,” he explains.

Clients responded to that proposition in 2023, with Real Chemistry supporting nearly a third of the year’s Food and Drug Administration approvals. The company counts Bristol Myers Squibb, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Incyte, Madrigal Pharmaceuticals and Diageo among its roster mainstays, and added engagements with existing client Bayer as well as new clients Waters Corp., Sutro Biopharma, Repare Therapeutics and Vilya during 2023.

Real Chemistry creative sample

Though pharma marketing generally isn’t renowned for its creativity, Real Chemistry is trying to make boundary-
challenging creative its calling card. “We’re intentionally trying to be different,” says chief creative officer Frank Mazzola.

By way of example, Mazzola points to a pitch for Treace Medical Concepts’ new bunion surgery. The procedure, lapiplasty, is hardly a household word, but Real Chemistry nonetheless reached out to Harold Einstein, who has directed Super Bowl commercials, to work on the spot.

While he had never ventured into the world of health, Einstein was intrigued by the concept drawn up by Treace and Real Chemistry. Why? Because he saw that the proposed script wasn’t just pushing the procedure on the audience; it was intended to connect and to entertain.

“It was a little quirky,” Mazzola admits.

Meanwhile, the Real Chemistry media team scored a coup by scheduling the ad to premiere during the season finale of The Bachelor, which just so happened to feature a bachelor who’d struggled all his life with bunions. The result: 5,000 website visits within the first five minutes of the spot airing. 

Other 2023 developments included the launch of an in-house production company, Room42. “It’s full-service and available to all of Real Chemistry and, really, to any agency or client needing production support with print, audio, video or digital,” Piscatelli enthuses. “Our producers are there as long as they’re needed, from initial concept identification onward.” 

Given the volume of health-adjacent organizations trying to engage more effectively with Gen Z — whose members aren’t exactly regular visitors to pharma websites — Mazzola stresses the importance of bolstering the entertainment value of healthcare marketing. 

“Gen Z goes on TikTok for their information, but they won’t interact with a pharmaceutical company because they’re just there for entertainment,” he explains. “So how do you create something they’ll actually seek out? By making it entertaining.” 

That’s why Room42 has been charged with “creating social content on TikTok in a very authentic way, 365 days a year,” Piscatelli says. “Our always-on approach keeps us in regular contact with our communities.”

Another way Real Chemistry is changing how audiences are engaging with pharma is via gamification. The company’s 21Gaming offering can support products anywhere in their lifecycles, Piscatelli notes. That includes addressing challenges around adherence during clinical trials and long after products have reached the market. 

And thanks to moving early on Swoop — Real Chemistry acquired the firm in January 2021 — the company has been way ahead of the industry’s current all-AI-all-the-time fixation. “We’re integrating it to drive efficiencies, but also to identify and reach audiences and engage with them, then measuring our results and adapting,” notes president, scientific visualization Brandon Pletsch.

“What we’re doing in tech and with AI and the combination of communications is really special,” Govil adds. “It’s been amazing to join an organization where every single level is using AI.” 

. . .

Work we wish we did

Dove’s Cost of Beauty campaign is such a master class in visceral storytelling that, if it were pharma-related, it would surely sail through regulatory. We see that type of storytelling in work from Dove, P&G and Nike time and again. The limitations of our industry are vastly overstated, because infusing creativity with emotion — for audiences to not just “see” the work but to experience it — is a choice. — Frank Mazzola

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