For years, Klick Health enjoyed a reputation as the agency world’s powerhouse outsider. The rep was earned in part by the agency’s obvious delight in driving innovation (especially of the digital sort) in, around, and through an industry that was initially resistant to it. But it was also a matter of simple geography: With a thriving base of operations in Toronto, Klick’s presence in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia corridor was more virtual than actual.
That’s not to say that its A-list clientele didn’t have bodies on the ground wherever and whenever they were needed, just that some of Klick’s considerable mystique was derived from the company’s longstanding reluctance to hang a shingle in New York City. Klick could make it there, as the song goes, but it simply chose not to.
This drove competing firms batty, even as they privately expressed relief they would not have to compete for top talent against the notoriously employee-friendly agency from north of the border. Last year at this time, after all, Klick shared details of an employee-recruitment push centered around parking ice cream carts near the offices of its top local competition.
All that changed in a big way on June 1 when Klick reversed course and opened an office — only its second formal outpost — in New York. “You know the way we operate: Our approach is to expand our client and team base, then worry about physical space later,” says Klick president Lori Grant, who moved to New York last August to spearhead the expansion plans (and, ultimately, to lead the office).
“That’s a big difference between Klick and other agencies,” Grant adds. “They’ll have a big grand opening for a new office, then a few months later they might not have the work to sustain it.”
The office opened its doors with 30 staffers on site and plenty of room for imminent growth (to put this number in context, Klick employs just south of 600 people across North America, with teams based everywhere from Atlanta and Philadelphia to Los Angeles and San Francisco). What’s more, the fears of its competitors were realized, as a solid percentage of Klick’s inaugural NYC hires were poached from firms owned by holding companies. Big-name additions included chief growth officer Doug Burcin, formerly global CEO at Havas Health; EVP, market access and B2B Khawar Khokhar, formerly head of market access and B2B at Havas Health; and SVP, account planning Noriko Yokoi, formerly EVP, group planning director at Area 23.
“You’ve probably heard [Klick cofounder and CEO] Leerom [Segal] say this, but when we consider bringing somebody on board, we think, ‘If I were stuck in an airport with this person for six hours, am I going to have a good time? Am I going to learn something new or be inspired?’ Everybody here passes that test,” Grant says.
The agency didn’t stop there. Among the other well-regarded execs joining Klick during the past year were executive creative director Lance Paull, formerly executive creative director at Evoke Health; chief medical officer Gautam Gulati, formerly chief medical & innovation officer, SVP product management at Physicians Interactive Holdings; SVP, brand strategy Leslie Jamison, formerly EVP, MD at Self Care Catalysts; and VP, strategic partnerships Jennifer White, formerly EVP, strategic partnerships at Aptus Health.
But when asked whether Klick’s independence from the traditional agency model and the coolness factor of its work — more on that in a bit — have made the company a preferred destination for disaffected big-company execs, Grant demurs.
“Obviously our culture is a big and important part of our business — it’s not what we do, but how we do it. We’re very conscious, and very proud, of how we work,” Grant explains.
“At the same time, it’s just as much about putting people in positions where they can shine. The idea is to find out their passions and marry their role to that. It’s not just ‘do what everybody else in the world does.’”
That holds double for the agency’s client work, especially as it pertains to digital technology. Klick is a big believer in the notion of digital empathy — that more tools and processes need to be put into place that help individuals at all levels of the medical system better, and more humanely, relate to patients.
“In medical school, empathy is one of the most difficult things to teach,” Grant says. “Because it’s a feeling, and how exactly do you get to the heart of that?”
That’s why she views one particular Klick partnership — the agency is teaming with a client on an tech-enabled glove that allows users to experience the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease patient — as being particularly innovative and meaningful.
“When you put on the glove, you feel what a patient with Parkinson’s disease feels — your entire arm trembles. You’re not just seeing it, you’re feeling it,” Grant continues. “It’s like with Oculus Rift, for example. Lots of companies are exploring Oculus Rift, but they’re doing it from the perspective of showing you something cool. Our goal is to take the data and bring it back to the telemetry of the human being, bring it back to, ‘How can I better treat this patient?’ That’s empathy.”
Klick isn’t keen on sharing specifics about its business and its client relationships. A spokesperson declined to confirm or dismiss an MM&M estimate that the company generated $125 million in 2015 revenue, up around 9% from an estimated $115 million haul in 2014. Grant similarly declines to name names when asked about recent additions to the Klick client roster, though the agency is known to count AstraZeneca, Novartis, Pfizer, Roche, and Sanofi among its heaviest hitters.
What interests her more, especially with Klick now entrenched in the Big Apple, is discussing what comes next.
Alone among the nearly 200 agency executives interviewed for this issue’s profiles, Grant doesn’t mention the words “pharma” or “healthcare” a single time during the course of a 40-minute chat. Clearly she — and, by extension, Klick — feels that these terms can be a bit limiting within the context of any discussion about the quote-unquote agency of the future.
When asked how Klick convinces traditionally conservative companies in and around pharma (our word, not hers) to come along for the ride, Grant says the key is to aim far beyond quotidian concerns. “Clients today, they want it all, and they want it better, faster, cheaper — and sometimes it’s like, ‘Hey, you can pick two of three,’” she jokes.
“But what I hope we realize is that it’s very easy to get mired in a specific project or tactics. It takes a lot of thoughtfulness to think in terms of, ‘What do these businesses need going forward?’ I used to work for those businesses. I know how you can get mired in the issues of the day. What I hope is that we’ll always try to step outside of that.”