It’s not hard for HCB Health CEO Kerry Hilton and newly promoted president Nancy Beesley to identify a singular highlight from 2018. It came in the form of a text message from Colin Foster. Yes, he texted, he’d like to join the agency as chief digital officer.

It wasn’t just that Foster, who had been at W2O and previously spent eight years running Novartis’ social media group, added important digital skills for the agency’s expanding base of clients. It’s that they’d been wooing him for several years.

“His acceptance of our offer at this point in time was because we really are transforming ourselves, moving beyond being a med-tech agency to one that is fully digital and fully involved in biopharma,” says Hilton.

Beesley says the shift was motivated in part by the changing composition of the health/pharma client base. “For the past 17 years we’ve focused on med-tech and Alcon is still a big client,” she explains. “But as we showed Colin our roster, it was clear that we are much more than med-tech.”

To that point, Beesley notes that HCB has three genetics clients. “This is the future of medicine,” she continues. “We’re working with therapies that are smart and highly targeted, and we are excited to be on the forefront.” New client Spark Therapeutics, whose Luxturna became the first gene therapy approved for inherited blindness, clearly matches that description.

Other additions included the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, Terumo Aortic, Revance Therapeutics (for an aesthetic used to treat frown lines) and Abbott (for work in neuromodulation). HCB lost an account from Aries and ended its relationships with The GID Group and Merit Medical.

Foster wasn’t the only important hire. Despite a four-person drop in overall head count, HCB added VP, group account supervisor Gabriel Cangiano (from his eponymous healthcare consultancy), account supervisor Alison Rominger (from Bristol-Myers Squibb) and group art supervisor Brooks Bagwell (from MedThink Communications by way of the freelance world).

Following an 8% jump in revenue during 2018, from $13.7 million to $14.8 million, HCB is off to a fast start in 2019, Hilton reports. “Within the first
90 days, we brought in $2.3 million worth of business. We’re doing lots of pitches in both biopharma and med-tech.”

Still, Hilton and Beesley believe their most important work has been toward the goal of preserving a strong agency culture. 

“We’ve been working on refining our brand,” Hilton says, pointing to a set of 12 recently codified “fundamentals of listening” and the firm’s new core values. One encourages HCB staffers to “act with a servant’s heart,” while another calls on them to submit nominations for the “Badass of the Month.”

“It’s a way to intentionally create these values and show how we live them,” Beesley says. “It’s why we have so little personnel attrition.”