When discussing pharma campaigns, you rarely hear much about concepts like virality or guerrilla marketing. But Area 23 chief creative officer Tim Hawkey says that’s changing — and it has the agency’s teams fired up.

Since its debut in February 2008, Area 23 has been pushing its pharma and healthcare client base for more innovative thinking. Eleven years on, that relative aggressiveness has proven quite good for business: Revenue surged nearly 18% in 2018, from $102 million to $120 million, after a 17% bump in 2017. And not that this is easily quantified, but Area 23 is perceived as one of the industry’s truly “hot” destinations for high-end talent.

Hawkey seems gratified, though not the slightest bit surprised, that the Area 23 approach continues to resonate. “We’ve been pitching our clients more experiential, guerrilla and stunt PR ideas, as well as technology solutions that don’t have an immediate ROI,” he says. “We’ve been talking about non-advertising solutions to client marketing problems that increase the creativity in pharma marketing and change the standard pattern of work.”

He believes that clients started to embrace disruptive marketing ideas during the last year or so, which in turn has bolstered enthusiasm within Area 23’s walls. “We want to explore how we can use technology or create technology that can enhance the lives of patients, and that’s incredibly fulfilling,” he adds. “It’s exciting for our teams to spend their time working on these projects.”

Area 23’s 2018 growth came at a time when the agency significantly throttled back on pitching new clients. Existing clients represented 65% of the firm’s revenue growth, which was a higher percentage than in recent years.

“We were growing at a pace where we needed to hit the pause button,” acknowledges Area 23 president Renee Mellas. “There were 33 new-business opportunities that we didn’t pursue. We either directed them to another agency within the FCB Health network or just declined.”

Less time pitching meant more time for the company’s existing slate of clients. “I’ve seen agencies where 20% of their annual time is spent on new business. If you take those hours, resources and energy and reinvest it into your current clients, your ROI is tremendous,” Mellas adds.

At the same time, despite this stated commitment to slower growth, Area 23 added 17 new AOR assignments during 2018. New work arrived from the Boehringer Ingelheim/Lilly Diabetes Alliance (one product AOR assignment), Eli Lilly (two), GlaxoSmithKline (one), AstraZeneca (one),

Daiichi-Sankyo (one), Aclaris (two), Horizon Pharma (one), Gilead Sciences (one), Neurocrine Biosciences (one), ViiV Healthcare (one), The Learning Corp. (one), Leo Pharma (two), Acasti Pharma (one) and Novartis (one). The agency lost one account: Eli Lilly’s soft tissue sarcoma drug Lartruvo, which was withdrawn from the market following the failure of a Phase III clinical trial.

While Area 23’s creativity has resulted in a wellspring of client attention and industry awards, Mellas isn’t keen on accepting project assignments floated by would-be clients. Indeed, all of the agency’s clients are on board in an AOR capacity. “We’re not a project shop and we don’t do one-offs,” she says.

Area 23’s recent work shows why it has so many suitors. The Rape Tax, created for the National Organization for Victims Assistance, shone a light on the often punishing financial impact endured by victims of sexual assault. At Cannes, the campaign was awarded the Glass Lion For Change, which recognizes work that addresses “ingrained gender inequality, imbalance or injustice.”

The agency’s creativity wasn’t limited to the print or digital realms. The World’s Smallest Booth, assembled to grow awareness for Lilly’s Lartruvo at the Society of Gynecologic Oncology’s annual meeting, showcased a 1.2-square-foot booth incorporating a holographic sales rep, detail aid, brand manifesto and email — all at 1/133rd their normal size.

Then, in April 2019, Area 23 joined forces on a pro bono basis with Change The Ref, an organization founded by the parents of a Parkland shooting victim. To raise awareness about mass shootings and stir up support for The Assault Weapons Ban of 2019, Area 23 helped create Impossible Operation, an unwinnable board game modeled after real reports of mass shootings. Physical copies of the game were sent to members of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Area 23 also did its share of infrastructural work. Hoping to further bolster the agency’s early-development bona fides, especially during the medical-heavy pre-launch process, parent FCB Health realigned med-ed communications firm Hudson Global under the Area 23 umbrella. The rebranded agency, now known as Area 23 on Hudson, formally debuted in September 2018.

Jamie Cipriano, previously EVP and MD at Hudson Global, is leading the new shop, which is based in Yonkers, New York. She reports to Mellas and Hawkey. According to Mellas, Area 23 and Area 23 on Hudson are already collaborating on four pieces of business, including one from Novartis.

Not surprisingly, Area 23’s growth prompted an influx of new talent, especially at the EVP and SVP levels. Staff size grew from 375 at the end of 2017 to 450 at the end of 2018.

Among the notable additions: EVP, director, medical/scientific affairs Wolf Gallwitz (who joined from Juice Pharma); EVP, executive creative director Elliot Langerman (Klick Health); SVP, group creative director Tim Jones (Havas Lynx/Manchester); SVP, creative director Patrick Moos (GSW); SVP, management director Jessica Riebe (Sudler & Hennessey); SVP, management director Megan McCann (Grey Group); SVP, management director Matt Mandia (Juice Pharma); SVP, group engagement director Alec Pollak (Juice Pharma); and SVP, director of integrated production Jennifer Ma (Sudler & Hennessey).

The staff influx prompted a space crunch, which Area 23 resolved first by taking additional room in its midtown Manhattan headquarters and then by relocating 100 people to an office a few blocks away. “We were taking conference calls in the closet,” Mellas says.