Ogilvy Health emerged from 2018 with a new leader, a new name and a head start towards integrating with parent company Ogilvy. And it all coincided with one of the most eventful 12-month periods in WPP history, if not advertising itself.
Last April, barely a month into Andrew Schirmer’s inaugural year as CEO of Ogilvy Health, Sir Martin Sorrell exited the WPP C-suite amid more than the usual share of drama. Six months later, Sorrell’s successor, Mark Read, decided to blow up the WPP Health & Wellness brand that had housed Ogilvy Health and its US-based sibling health agencies.
The health and wellness group transitioned into a specialty health practice within WPP — minus its former branding — led by global CEO Mike Hudnall. In one of several subsequent mergers, Schirmer’s firm, formerly known as Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide, was paired with the Ogilvy mothership.
Now, it’s one thing to sign off on a union of that sort, but quite another to actualize it. For his part, Schirmer says he has approached the merger with eyes wide open — which is to say, he validates the strategy while hesitating to declare it a finished product.
“Across our organization, there’s a great deal of alignment that our best structural reality for the future is to be a part of one of the true global giants in communications,” he says.
As for WPP’s official timeline — the holding company had expected to finish integrating Ogilvy Health into Ogilvy (along with Sudler & Hennessey and GHG into newly formed VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson Health, respectively) in the first half of this year — Schirmer has this to say: “For an organization of our size to be absorbed by a multinational like this is a process. To get to a practical operating level, where we truly are operating as a single company as though we were never apart, will take some time.”
As all of this has been percolating, the agency’s hiring and new business activity hasn’t let up. For one, chief creative officer Samantha Dolin joined last July from Evoke. And clients are showing signs of receptivity to the new structure.
“All of those changes, from top to bottom, have led to organic growth,” Dolin says. “Last week an existing client said they will be giving us a new brand in the portfolio without a pitch. So we’re starting to see the fruits of all this labor begin to converge in meaningful ways.”
Still, it comes after a protracted stretch of so-so performance for Ogilvy Health. “I wouldn’t be straight if I said 2018 wasn’t the penultimate transition year,” Schirmer says.
Revenue came in relatively flat last year at an MM&M-estimated $150 million, as did staff size, which hovered around 760, per MM&M estimates. That follows a 2017 in which the agency saw declines in both sums.
The company reports that its roster was ten clients lighter at the end of 2018 than it was at the end of 2017 (62 versus 72), having lost one AOR account and nine project-based clients. Its business rebounded somewhat in the early months of 2019, with the agency reporting a flat Q1.
That’s against a backdrop of WPP’s greater North American region, which suffered an 8.5% decrease in quarterly net sales. It marked the group’s ninth quarter in a row of declining revenue, since Q1 2017, and its worst performance yet. Read has admitted “it will take time” to see an improvement as he embarks on a three-year turnaround plan and blamed the slump on “continued pressure and the impact of assignment losses among automotive, pharmaceutical and [CPG] clients in 2018,” including GlaxoSmithKline.
Ogilvy Health, for its part, may be on the leading edge of that turnaround, with Schirmer reporting that the agency notched five wins in the first quarter of 2019. He adds that his crew has made “great strides” in not only cementing its relationship with its new parent, but in providing clients with solutions, teams and service offerings that wouldn’t have been possible before the structural changes. While roughly a third of Ogilvy Health’s billings still come from HCP promotion, Schirmer says that share has begun to lessen as its offering diversifies.
The company generally doesn’t say much about its client relationships, but it has worked in recent months on the U.S. launch of Bayer’s Vitrakvi, approved for a genetically targeted pan-cancer indication. The assignment entails HCP, patient and payer work, along with disease awareness (professional and consumer) and testing/diagnostics work. Other ongoing engagements include DTC for L’Oréal’s skincare brand CeraVe; unbranded DTC stroke awareness on behalf of Genentech’s Activase; and HCP promo and patient education for Alfasigma USA’s Deplin and its MDD indication.
In the high-profile client work COO Marc Weiner sees evidence of progress from a cultural, staffing and operational standpoint. “The vision and mission is more clearly defined under Andrew’s leadership than it was during that transition year,” he notes. He adds that, thanks in large part to Dolin, “A culture of curiosity permeates the organization that’s very different and manifests itself in the work and people.”
Speaking of which, the agency has created some new roles. Dan Chichester arrived in March from TBWA\WorldHealth to assume the position of chief experience officer, while Amy Graham and Laura Schember were both promoted to client engagement officer. Departures included managing partner Darlene Dobry, who joined Healthcare Success to help lead its new Aria Agency offering.
Chichester, characterized by Schirmer as a digital engagement and technology pioneer with copywriting chops, represents the fusion of creativity and experiential expertise that Ogilvy Health is aiming for in its work. An outgrowth of that fusion is the agency’s new 12-person Innovation Lab, whose creations have included interactive and engaging booth experiences at conventions, among other things.
Dolin calls the lab “a representation of who we are. It’s ultimately a service and an attraction that many of our clients come in to see and experience for themselves, and it’s part of the life blood of the organization.”
Especially in light of the company’s fuller Ogilvy integration, the execs say they look forward to realizing their “north star” of making brands matter. Dolin sums it up neatly: “Our whole vision is taking away any barriers and obstacles to making sure patients and physicians get the information and support they need from brands.”