Even a fleeting mention of the word change can strike fear into the heart of some healthcare agencies, particularly those that weren’t paying attention when the ground started to move under the feet of the industry.

But ghg is not one of those agencies. The WPP-owned network, which turned 30 this year, is a continually evolving entity that has always ­relished a good transitional challenge. And ghg’s DNA mirrors that of its CEO, Lynn O’Connor Vos, whose enthusiasm for pushing the envelope and whose drive to get out ahead of the evolving health landscape have not wavered in more than two decades. “If you’re going to be in the agency world today, you’ve got to be a catalyst for change,” she declares.

These are not hollow words. In a glowing endorsement of its appetite for innovation, ghg has become the first (and, so far, the only) agency to partner with IBM Watson on a beta project in cognitive computing. “It’s essentially the idea that computers that can absorb all the data that exists, structured and unstructured, and then reason like a human, but without all the biases,” explains Erin Byrne, managing partner, chief engagement officer.

“If you can add a Watson application to a wearable and actually drive the big data down into meaningful chunks, you can educate a consumer about what to do, when and how,” Vos adds.

Vos believes we’re at a pivotal point for the industry. “It’s a never-before moment where the power of health communications can make the most difference—if we understand how to deliver it,” she expalins. Vos’s mantra is simple: Communications Is the Cure. Having already woven it tightly into the fabric of her agency, she is now intent on taking it to the industry. “We want to own it and we want to push it, because it will improve patient care,” she says. “Nothing excites me more than the idea that we are transforming the healthcare business.”

Vos is not afraid to play the evangelist role whenever there’s need to reinforce a message—such as the notion of healthcare as a customer-­service business. “Wake up and smell the coffee!” she proclaims. “When did we ever believe it would be anything less?”

To illustrate this customer dynamic, ghg created a playful visual metaphor for “driving high-performance healthcare” by using the image of a car: health-tech represents the engine, the payer is the driver, the HCP is struggling to stay in the front seat and the consumers are in the backseat trying to grab the wheel. It’s cute and clever. But where’s pharma? “Pharma is in the trunk,” confirms Vos. 

Another focus for ghg is to gain better understanding of bringing clients into the physician workflow. Vos feels some of the industry’s initial resistance to EHRs is subsiding, as clients hunt for smarter options. “Why should providers have to dig around for the value that pharma companies want to provide?” asks Vos. “You need to be at the point of care.” So ghg offers EHR solutions via strategic partnerships, including with PracticeFusion, ­Athena, OPTIMIZERx (e-coupons) and PARx (prior authorization).

“At the end of the day, we want to really drive influence at that context of care where the physician and the patient are together,” says Byrne. “That’s where we can ring the cash register for our clients and be most helpful and valuable to the patient.”

Without divulging numbers, Vos reports that ghg had a good 2014 overall and an “outstanding” performance on home soil. “We were killing it in the US,” she beams, citing strong growth in Kansas City, which handles the agency’s animal health business. She has high hopes, too, for the retooled and renamed Jersey agency, ghg summit (formerly Vogel Farina, see p. 76). 

Vos notes that the three medical-education ­businesses—International Meetings & Sciences, PhaseFive and Darwin (in Europe)—also performed strongly. “We are seeing a real need to ­address high-level scientific content that is impor­tant to clients,” she says, highlighting a partnership with MedPage Today that gives ghg access to a database of 500,000 physicians. The fastest-­growing division was the payer group, WG Consulting. Outside of the US, focus is limited to Japan and Australia, but Vos feels it provides an adequate footprint for current clients. 

US head count in 2014 remained at around 565. One significant hire was Ben Ingersoll, who was named managing partner, chief creative officer.
A 20-year veteran of CDM, Ingersoll told MM&M at the time that he was won over by ghg’s “­commitment to be experimental” and that he had a three-year plan to make it “the hottest creative healthcare agency in the business.”

Vos is proud of the “breakthrough creative” for Pfizer’s 2014 launch of meningitis B treatment Trumenba, adding that ghg is currently working on an “extremely fun” launch for Kythera’s recently approved double-chin injection, Kybella.

Other key clients include Bayer Animal Health, Bayer Women’s Health, Bayer Oncology, Baxter, Novo Nordisk, Novartis, Roche, EOS and INMED, plus ghg has a “significant amount” of Pfizer business. And ghg continues to build its oncology and rare- diseases franchises. “We are actively diversifying our client base by design,” says Vos.

Each ghg office has a managing partner structure and follows a methodology called “contagious thinking.” It incorporates three phases of work, each headed by one of the three managing partners, but with support from the other two. “Curiosity” is led by brand strategy director John Dietz, “Distillation” is headed by Ingersoll and “Reverberation” is Byrne’s domain. 

Dietz stresses the importance of integration across the teams. “We now incorporate thinking from our payer group, and even our med-ed colleagues. We are constantly evolving the model to meet the changing need of what is really a marketing mix for healthcare in the future.” 

Ingersoll notes that clients are asking for, and demanding, new ways of thinking. “We need to be prepared. We actually need to be leading our clients and introducing them to new ideas.”

The onus is on ghg to help make innovation and experimentation safe for clients, which is done in two ways. First, by educating clients about the changing landscape and preparing their regulatory teams for the new ways content may be articulated; and second, by taking a test-and-learn approach, which usually means pilot programs. “We never want to spend a dollar of a client’s money if we don’t know if it will work,” says Byrne.

As an early adopter, ghg’s digital capabilities are inherently strong. Apart from the partnership with IBM Watson, Vos says the agency has done a lot of great digital work for Pfizer and is doing some “interesting things” out of Kansas City in animal health. “We are revamping the aisle to make it more of an educational experience to drive product uptake and a better understanding among consumers about animal health.”

Last year ghg hosted a digital health event, Stream Health. As well as being a showcase for inno­vation and ideas in healthcare, Dietz says it also brought experiences from other industries.

As for future trends, Dietz expects to see more data-driven decision making and analytics. “We have to get better if we are going to continue to invest in analytics,” he says. “The critical thing for us is to lead the relationship because there is a lot of potential for confusion about what to do with
all the data.” 

Ingersoll believes there’s more to the future of health tech than wearables. “We are trying to figure out new ways to use platforms for our clients. We are looking at 3-D printing. Can we create textures? Can we use sound to display data? It’s really exciting. It’s actually more exciting than it’s ever been
to be in this business right now.”