In 2018, Strikeforce Communications swapped one major Gilead Sciences franchise for another. The agency’s well-regarded work with the company’s hepatitis C franchise ended when Gilead consolidated the business, which included Harvoni, Vosevi and disease-awareness duty, under a single agency.
But Strikeforce wasn’t out for long. When Gilead rotated some of its hep. C marketing team members into its HIV franchise, those individuals brought Strikeforce back for a new assignment: strategy and branding for the entire HIV franchise, rather than for individual products. Gilead has 11 HIV and AIDS medicines, including PrEP drug Truvada and single-pill treatment Biktarvy.
It’s no small charge, says Strikeforce founder and CEO Mike Rutstein. “How do we take the collective strength of everything that Gilead accomplished over three decades and create a narrative around it, then create an HIV brand that serves as an overarching umbrella? It’s moving from a product approach to putting a bigger roof on the house, which will help elevate the products,” he explains.
Thus Gilead represented both the biggest win and biggest loss for Strikeforce during 2018. Strikeforce also picked up product work from NovaBay Pharmaceuticals and Mobius Therapeutics and corporate work from NxStage.
The new accounts increase Strikeforce’s total to 13. Longtime clients include Acadia (for Parkinson’s drug Nuplazid), Alcon (for its intraocular lenses) and the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
Strikeforce’s revenue dropped slightly in 2018, from $13 million in 2017 to $12 million, and head count dipped from 30 to 25. However, those latter figures may be misleading as Strikeforce relies heavily on partnerships (such as with digital agencies Makeable and Scrum50, neither of which are native to healthcare/pharma) and relationships with freelancers.
Rutstein describes the partnerships as win-win situations. Teaming up with Strikeforce gives those organizations the opportunity to flex their consumer muscle in a new vertical, while Strikeforce benefits from their proximity to the consumer world — and the tactics/strategies that haven’t yet reached healthcare. Rutstein says these partnerships will help his firm stay true to one of its guiding principles: To avoid anything that resembles the same-old-same-old DTC work that plagues healthcare marketing.
That’s one of the reasons why you won’t see Strikeforce attempting to drive staff size much beyond its current level. “We made a very conscious choice years ago to not try to bring all these different services under our roof,” Rutstein explains. “You want to make sure you don’t strip the magic and the passion and the excitement out. We want inspiration from the outside world brought into healthcare.”
Rutstein says 2019 challenges are the same ones the firm faced in 2018: agency consolidation, pricing pressures and glacially paced decision-making. “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he says. “That’s going to weigh on everybody during the next couple of years as we sort out where things are going from a political-climate point of view. To some degree, that puts the brakes on marketing and even potentially innovation.”