Asked about the year’s most satisfying successes, Neon managing director Kevin McHale points to the win of Exact Sciences’ in-home colon cancer test Cologuard. But for McHale, the satisfaction came as much from how the business was won as from the win itself.

For the pitch, which included PR, HCP and DTC components, Neon teamed with its sibling FCB Health Network agencies. “That was an interesting endeavor because it gave us the opportunity to work closely with the extended network. It’s an extraordinary achievement because of the fluidity of the network and the ecosystem,” McHale says.

Last year was a good one on the pitching front, with Neon adding work from AbbVie, Sandoz, Flexion Therapeutics and Strongbridge Biopharma among its nine new assignments. Its two losses included products from Strongbridge and Theravance Biopharma.

Head count and revenue remained relatively static. The former grew from 165 at the end of 2017 to 173 at the end of 2018, while the latter rose a tick to an MM&M-estimated $35 million from an estimated $34.5 million.

Overall, McHale was pleased with the firm’s performance in the face of a handful of challenges, which included client companies selling products and filing for bankruptcy. He also notes delays related to the FDA and the government shutdown put a dent in some launch plans.

Like many of his peers, he points to the drawn-out RFP process as an ongoing headache. “It’s become a two- or three- or four-part process, which means that we’ve moved from three weeks to send in the RFP response and do the pitch to three or four months,” McHale explains.

Neon has also seen change in its C-suite. At the start of 2019, former Harrison and Star president Mardene Miller joined the firm as EVP and managing director alongside McHale. Former managing director Mark Arnold departed the firm in January.

McHale says Miller was brought in to help “elevate” the agency and its talent as Neon closes in on its 10th birthday this year. “I look at myself as the spark that’s helping to ignite the amazing talent that’s here,” Miller adds. “We’ve got a great formula of people and creativity and culture already instilled at Neon thanks to Kevin’s longstanding leadership here. I’m just helping to make that even more of a fire.”

Both McHale and Miller are expecting another growth year from 2019 — and, clearly, hoping to contend with fewer logistical challenges than it did in 2018. “We had high hopes, because we were poised for a lot of different launches last year,” McHale says. “A lot of the odd things that happened were beyond the control of the agency. But through all of that, the prevailing attitude within the agency was always a deep sense of optimism.”

McHale adds that the challenges ultimately made Neon a stronger, more cohesive company. “One thing that we never want for here is opportunity,” he continues. “While things stalled at times in 2018 — and it could have perhaps crushed a lesser agency or a private agency — for us it was simply a moment to pivot and go out and find different opportunities.”