When asked how she believes HCB Health is perceived in and around the broader healthcare world, partner and chief strategy officer Nancy Beesley pauses before answering. “When we started, there were lots of naysayers about being based in Austin. There’s still a little, ‘Where did they come from?’ even after we’ve had large accounts such as Alcon for years,” she says, then adds, “But the real answer is: People think we’re smart and nice.”

HCB seems OK with that perception, especially because it comes with growing respect and admiration from clients and the competition. “Over the past two or three years, we’ve become real contenders and competitors to other midsize independent agencies,” says partner and CEO Kerry Hilton. “We seem to be getting here earlier in the morning and staying later in the night, which is usually a good sign.”

Revenue and staff size both nudged upward in 2017, the former from $13.5 million to $13.7 million and the latter from 85 full-timers to 88. Key personnel additions included former Juice Pharma exec Bob Palmer as chief innovation officer and Kathie Jones as CFO.

In fact, Jones became the agency’s first CFO. “One of the reasons clients want to work with us is we’re very hands-on. But clients also want staffing models and really sophisticated forecasts and budget management,” Beesley explains. “Redoing our entire financial package made it so we can work more efficiently.”

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Hilton agrees, adding “2017 was all about infrastructure. We knew we had to reshape the house to meet the demand of what was coming.”

It isn’t as if 2017 was quiet on that front. HCB added four Aries Pharmaceuticals products to its roster (Eleview, Methylene Blue MMX, Aemcolo, and Remimazolam) and set about launching them on an accelerated timeline. It also claimed work from Merit Medical (for its prostatic artery embolization nonsurgical treatment) and The GID Group (for a platform technology that uses stem cells).

HCB also won an AOR assignment from Revance, whose Botox-like neurotoxin has shown great promise as it enters Phase III trials. “Clients are coming to us earlier in the process, when they need an agency that knows how to tell a strong corporate story that can ladder up into a brand story. We’re agile that way,” Beesley says.

Expect HCB to pursue more such early engagements to diversify therapeutically. It will have an ally at its side, courtesy of a strategic alliance with digital specialist Closerlook that was forged last year. The two firms have pitched side-by-side four times over the past year and emerged victorious in three of the four endeavors.