The call came straight from the top — Jon Cook, global CEO of VML — and it delivered a message that both shocked and energized the world of medical marketing agencies: Two of its biggest and best-regarded firms, VMLY&R Health and Wunderman Thompson Health, were about to become one.

Claire Gillis, then the CEO of VMLY&R Health and now CEO of the freshly unified VML Health, claims that when Cook shared his plans with her, she didn’t experience a single moment of merger-related anxiety. So either she has nerves of steel, or the pieces of the VMLY&R Health/Wunderman Thompson Health puzzle have truly meshed as well as advertised. Or both.

“It meant that we had the strategy and creativity and we were adding in data and analytics. It meant that we had synergistic clients and a number of shared accounts,” she recalls. There was a personal dimension to her response as well: “I had worked with many of those people before and they were lovely. So it was all the pieces of the jigsaw coming together for us.”

Because the transaction was positioned as a merger of equals and there were few redundancies outside the C-suite — former Wunderman Thompson Health CEO Patrick Wisnom departed in December — for many staffers it boiled down to little more than a shorter email address. In its wake, VML Health ranks as one of the largest and most comprehensive health communications networks in North America and the world.

VMLY&R Health and Wunderman Thompson Health collectively generated $464 million in revenue in 2022 and $490 million in 2023, representing a 6% gain. The company counts Genentech, Johnson & Johnson Innovative Medicine, Gilead, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim and Walgreens among its roster mainstays. Along those lines, the unification resulted in the loss of a mere “one or two” clients due to conflicts, according to chief client officer and North American lead Jason Gloye. 

VML Health creative sample

That’s not to say the merger proceeded completely smoothly, especially given the long parade of WPP-blender mergers that preceded it. VMLY&R was birthed by the 2018 combination of VML and Y&R, while Wunderman Thompson Health came together the same year following the fusion of GHG, J. Walter Thompson Health and Wunderman Health. Prior to that, the various brands had been lumped under the WPP Health & Wellness umbrella.

“Our industry over-indexes on change, and some people are changed out,” Gillis concedes.

Gloye, who learned about the merger only 12 hours before it was announced in October, says he instantly realized that transparency would be crucial to a successful rollout. “We said, ‘Look, there is no plan. We’ve only known about this for a few hours. If we had a plan, it would be terrible and you don’t want that. So let’s just get through Q1.’”

That said, the marriage ultimately didn’t prove a hard sell. “It’s paying off fast,” Gillis enthuses. “There’s just a ton of momentum.” VML Health started operating as a single organization in January.

Gillis reports that VML Health has sped up the integration process by deliberately mixing teams for pitches and campaigns.

VML Health creative sample

“We don’t want to say we’re tapping one legacy company or the other. Instead, we look closely at our bench, matching skills as we go,” she explains. “That’s the easiest way to get people to feel comfortable. We’re all just trying to deliver the best outcomes possible for patients. The wins show us the way, and everyone loves a win.”

Most of the company’s recent growth, in fact, has come from existing clients, which suits Gillis and Gloye just fine, given everything else going on under their roof.

“We’ve been very focused on stabilizing folks and clients,” Gloye notes. “What we’ve been asking ourselves is: How do we get back to what we call the ‘beautiful basics’? How do we make sure our people are happy? Do our clients know we have a deep command of their business and that we’re not spread too thin?’”

Gillis agrees, adding, “My most important KPI is, ‘Is the back door shut?’ We want to retain accounts and see them grow, and provide clients with a personalized experience.”

She would like to see VML Health’s employee-retention percentage approach the triple-digits, and is pleased the organization shed relatively few people in the merger’s wake. At the same time, Gillis acknowledges that sometimes people have to leave the nest to experience new things.

That’s why she counts “how many I get to hire back after they get that experience” as another KPI. “We are very proud to have so many boomerangs,” she says.

VML Health grew to 1,845 people by the end of 2023, up from 1,785 at the year’s outset. New appointments included the promotion of Mel Routhier to chief creative officer. “She’s a great leader,” Gillis enthuses. “She’s got empathy and manages that delicate dance of how to push people and still keep them feeling safe.”

Sari Schwartz became global VP, people, while Natxo Diaz became global head of health craft. 

As for client relations and retention, Gloye believes VML Health’s organic growth spurt stems from its willingness to have tough conversations. “In the world of client engagement, we’re not big on taking orders. We pride ourselves on navigating what’s right for the client’s business,” he explains.

To that point, Gloye recently informed a client that he was taking a key person off its business — a person the client happened to love. “I told them I had someone who would be an even better fit, but they needed to accept that things would be bumpy for the next six weeks,” he continues. “They called me back after three weeks and said, ‘This is the best thing that has ever happened.’”

As for the road ahead, Gillis is optimistic that On Co., an oncology specialist brand that debuted last year, will prove an invaluable part of the VML Health offering.

“The idea is to break oncology up into two words, because it is a totally fractured, terrible customer experience for everyone,” she says. “We wanted to deconstruct the word and make that kind of disruption the guiding principle we’ll follow.”

. . .

Work we wish we did

Apple’s The Underdogs: Swiped Mac. It’s not health-related and it’s long-form, but it’s an incredibly fun example of how to turn what could be seen as a basic product demo assignment into something compelling. It is utterly watchable — even at eight minutes long! — and full of fantastic craft. The writing could keep company with some of the best sitcoms. — Mel Routhier 

Click to see VML Health’s Agency 100 2023 Profile.

Click here to return to the MM+M Agency 100.