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Revenue fell by 1% to an MM&M-estimated $105 million


“It takes a long time to bring a good idea to market in healthcare, so there’s a sense of ‘I can’t wait for the rest of the world to see this work’” 
— Dave Sonderman


“Clients are looking for a commercial point of view that bridges a lot of capabilities and brings a lot of value”  
— Doug Mills

Let’s begin GSW’s story with an anecdote about a large pharma agency that isn’t GSW. Upon departing from that large agency, owned by a holding company that isn’t GSW parent inVentiv Health, an executive bemoaned the headaches created by what the individual believed was deliberately staged Hunger Games–style competition between firms under the same roof. 

“They wanted us to be at each other’s throats,” the executive said. “It didn’t matter that we were all in one P&L. They thought competition made us stronger, but all it did was make everyone anxious all the time. You can’t work like that — or you can, but if you do, the work suffers.”

Contrast this with the responses from a trio of GSW executives when asked about the mechanics of its relationship with corporate parent inVentiv and its tens of sibling agencies. “The whole idea behind the creation of inVentiv Health in 2005 was that it was going to be a collaborative service offering, not a competitive one,” says COO and CFO Doug Mills. “In traditional holding companies, there’s less collaboration because there’s not intended to be any collaboration — the intent is management of conflict. It’s difficult to do, but we work hard and put big investments behind it.”

GSW EVP and executive director of GSW New York Susan Perlbachs agrees and — based on her prior experience working for companies under the Omnicom, WPP, and IPG banners — she presumably knows what she’s talking about. 

“InVentiv is basically my Rolodex of 16,000 people. Occasionally there’s proprietary information that our colleagues feel they can’t share with us, but generally I feel I can pick up the phone and call anyone,” she says. “More and more, clients are interested in [agency partners] who can have those conversations early and get that important background information versus the traditional holding company that walks in late in the game.”

Then there’s EVP and chief creative officer Dave Sonderman, who characterizes GSW’s ability to avail itself of inVentiv’s intellectual resources as “a wonderful unfair advantage.” Sonderman uses that phrase while discussing the trend reports — consumer, digital, healthcare, and communications — assembled by GSW in concert with inVentiv Health Communications, the sixth version of which appeared earlier this year.

The whole idea behind the creation of inVentiv Health in 2005 was that it was going to be a collaborative service offering, not a competitive one. – Doug Mills, COO and CFO

“They’re about what is happening and what’s about to happen,” he explains. “It’s something else that shows that the real power here is not just coming up with creative ideas, but ideas that exploit insights. We don’t stop with paid advertising. We utilize the vast resources of inVentiv, in terms of social and PR, to make sure the work we’re creating is being viewed, seen, and used where it’s most helpful.” Sonderman adds that “the whole point of the inVentiv model is we’re synergistically drafting off each other.”

It’s tough to get a bead on the effect that GSW’s close relationship with its inVentiv siblings had on the agency’s 2016 results. The company is notoriously tight-lipped about client, brand, and financial details — which aren’t broken down on a company level in inVentiv’s 10-K filing, anyway.

GSW did reduce staff count in 2016, from 533 to 510. MM&M estimates a more or less flat year in terms of revenue — $105 million in 2016, down a touch from $106 million in 2015. A company spokesperson declined further comment on the estimate. There were fairly substantial changes on the personnel front. Former GSW North America president Marci Piasecki left the agency at the end of last year; as of late May, her old role had not been filled. 

GSW did add a quartet of well-regarded execs elsewhere in the organization. They included EVP and managing director, GSW greater Philadelphia area Jon Nelson, formerly of PSL Group; VP and creative director Todd Henwood, formerly of FCB Health; SVP and group creative director Ram Gopalakrishnan, formerly of H4B Chelsea and H4B Catapult; and VP of technology Ken Fisher, formerly of Razorfish Global.

While GSW doesn’t eagerly crow about its client work — Mills says he can only report “double-digit” wins in 2016 and another “half dozen” in Q1 2017, while Sonderman points to “significant” additions in the dermatology and ophthalmology spaces — the agency receives high marks from its industry peers for campaigns that hit the market last year. 

In particular, Mills and Sonderman reference three campaigns touching three different therapeutic areas: for UCB’s epilepsy drug Briviact, which launched into an increasingly crowded segment; for Shire’s Vyvanse, as part of an effort to make the conversations around ADHD among patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers more effective; and for Endo Pharmaceuticals’ Peyronie’s disease drug Xiaflex, in a program designed to address the condition’s psychological as well as physical impact.

“We’re getting a lot of ‘I didn’t expect that a pharma agency could be this cool and do this kind of work,’” enthuses EVP and executive creative director Nick Capanear. “People from consumer [agencies] didn’t know that you could do this kind of work in healthcare. Hopefully that gives us some sort of an advantage.”

As GSW prepares to celebrate its 40th birthday later this year, look for the agency to attempt to exploit that advantage in an ever-tighter talent marketplace. Expect it to press forward in the realm of predictive modeling, a capability GSW grew in 2016 and the first half of 2017 in response to client demand. “Campaign analytics and measurement have been real pain points,” Perlbachs explains. “There’s no solution out there that clients are happy with.” And look for GSW to continue in its role as industry thought leaders, especially when it comes to challenging the prevailing conventional industry wisdom. 

“‘Patient centricity’ has been a real buzz phrase in the industry, and pharma companies have it all over their websites, but as an approach it hasn’t necessarily moved the needle as much as clients and agencies thought it would,” Perlbachs notes. “Kathleen Starr, one of our behavioral scientists, has been looking at patient centricity and thinks that what we all need to focus on is social centricity. That is, that we need to look beyond patients and examine their whole ecosystem, including family and social influences. For us, that’s what’s next.” Sonderman agrees, adding, “We want to keep inspiring people to think differently about communicating in and around the healthcare space. Our work in the social area is going to be a bigger and big-ger part of that.”