Like any number of superheroes, Tom Harrison’s origin story begins in a lab. As a cancer researcher at West Virginia University, he relished the time he spent convening with and advising his fellow scientists. One day, however, his advisor, Dr. Richard Sutter, stopped in to deliver a message that would reorient his professional trajectory.
“He said, ‘You know, you’re just not the normal scientist,’” Harrison recalls.
While taken aback at first, Harrison came to realize that this sentiment was intended as high praise. “‘Richard said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with your research, but I see people coming in to talk with you and they keep coming back for more,’” Harrison continues. “He told me that I should consider a career in commercial industry. ‘It might be better for you than killing rats in your lab.’”
Harrison, who later co-founded Harrison & Star and engineered the rise of Omnicom’s health capability from a fledgling operation to a multinational force, took that advice to heart. While waiting with his wife, Pam, to see a doctor, he noticed a handful of physicians assembled around what he remembers as “this guy with a brown leather attaché that was beautiful. We asked ourselves, ‘Why are they talking to him and not to patients?’”
That individual, he learned, was a sales rep, and serving in that role bridged Harrison’s transition from scientist to marketer. He worked for Pfizer in a territory that covered Baltimore and surrounding areas. At the time he arrived, the territory ranked dead last out of more than 400 for the product he pedaled.
Harrison turned it around quickly, owing to an approach that most other reps couldn’t replicate: When detailing physicians, he focused on the science. “I used clinical reprints instead of the glossy sales aids,” he says. “What I tried to do was tell them when to use my products – and also when not to use my products. Sometimes a competing product was better.”
Before long, Harrison had relocated to Manhattan, where he was charged with training other members of the Pfizer sales force. Through the new job and geography he started to rub shoulders with members of the NYC advertising and marketing communities, which sparked his interest in the agency world. Harrison joined Rolf Werner Rosenthal in 1980, sliding easily into the role of account executive and soon rising into the company’s upper ranks.
“The scientific underpinnings of products we were representing — that wasn’t something you saw a lot of at that time.”
When RWR was acquired by Ogilvy, Harrison sensed it was time to branch out on his own. In 1987, with partner Larry Star, he co-founded Harrison and Star. The general idea was to marry science and marketing in a manner that few, if any, agencies had even bothered to attempt.
“The scientific underpinnings of products we were representing – that wasn’t something you saw a lot of at that time,” Harrison says.
The proposition proved a winning one. H&S’s work for Lederle and Sandoz got the agency in the door to pitch Squibb’s Azactam antibiotic. Despite only employing five full-timers at that point, H&S won the business over an assortment of bigger, more established firms.
Christine Poon, a Squibb product manager who eventually became vice chairman and worldwide chairman of pharmaceuticals at Johnson & Johnson, characterizes Harrison as “a lighthouse in the storm” during the work on Azactam and, later, in the run-up to the Bristol/Squibb merger. As skilled a strategist and account man as Harrison was, however, Poon believes his greatest skill was as a mentor.
“We learned more from him than we did in our MBA programs – more, frankly, than we ever learned from our direct bosses,” she says. “At the time it was happening, you didn’t really realize you were being mentored by him. But when you look back on it, you realize how much of his knowledge stayed with you.”
Former Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, Pharmacia and Schering Plough CEO Fred Hassan, agrees, adding, “Tom knew how to create followership behind him. He was able to not only get the best out of his people as individuals, but he also got the combined power of motivated, aligned and winning-focused teams.”
Poon recalls worrying about the fate of H&S during its infancy, though for different reasons than one might expect. “I said to him, ‘I wonder how hard it’s going to be to grow your business, because every brand is going to want you and you only have so many hours.’ Plus the ones they already had, like us, didn’t want to share him,” she says. “How do you grow your business when you are your business?”
Such concerns were quickly dismissed as H&S proved an immediate success, which Harrison remembers as “truly validating for the model we built.” It wasn’t long before the holding networks came calling, and H&S was sold to Omnicom in late 1992 (“12/22/1992. 11 a.m.!” Harrison recalls nearly 30 years later). Within a few years, Omnicom chief John Wren came to Harrison with an offer to lead the network’s Diversified Agency Services group, which at the time was a semi-organized grab bag of PR firms and healthcare agencies.
“He said, ‘You can do something with this, you can build it out,’” Harrison says. “I told him, ‘This is great, but I know healthcare. I don’t know other disciplines.’” The entrepreneur in Harrison eventually won out and he assumed the DAS role in April 1997. By the time he retired, he had acquired some 225 agencies with a collective $6 billion or so in annual revenue.
Harrison is exceedingly proud of the organizations he helped build – and it’s not lost on him that any number of agencies have attempted to replicate H&S’s science-first model. Ultimately, however, he hopes that his professional legacy is less about what he’s accomplished than who he is.
“I had a lovely chat with [TBWA\WorldHealth CEO and Omnicom Health Group chief client officer] Sharon Callahan before I retired. She said to me, ‘You always had an open door. No matter what we came in and laid on you, we always left your office inspired,’” he says. “Hearing something like that leaves a mark, in the best way.”