When Mark Read took over as the CEO of WPP last September, he hinted that he wanted the company to streamline its brands and offering. A few weeks later, it became quite clear that this wouldn’t be a drawn-out process: The company announced that VML and Y&R would merge to form VMLY&R, the WPP equivalent of a supergroup.
In New York, Y&R vet Howard Courtemanche was monitoring the situation with great interest. “What I was thinking was, ‘OK, now we have digital, experiential, brand-building and science all together. Is there any other place where this is more relevant than in healthcare?’” he recalls.
Further clarity came a month later, when WPP took a sledgehammer to the WPP Health & Wellness offering and spun Sudler & Hennessey into VMLY&R. Thus was born VMLY&R Health, an organization that counts an MM&M-estimated 600 healthcare specialists under its roof and generated an MM&M-estimated $50 million in revenue since its founding in October 2018.
Courtemanche, now VMLY&R’s chief business officer, healthcare, was quick to outline his vision for the new unit. “‘The most complete and powerful agency offering in healthcare’ is on the slide I’ve been presenting,” he says. “Clients said they wanted someone to figure out their brand regardless of audience. They wanted one contact and one P&L. So that’s what we did.”
It didn’t hurt that the health arms of VML and Y&R were more than familiar with one another, having jointly pitched and won PhRMA’s well-received Go Boldly campaign. So despite the usual concerns around change management (“a few people said, ‘This multidisciplinary thing isn’t for me,’” Courtemanche shrugs), the agency was able to hit the ground running.
Courtemanche reports that VMLY&R won more than $50 million in new business during its first six months, with healthcare representing “a big piece of that.” The new assignments span a range of categories, from Nature’s Bounty vitamins, the American Academy of Family Physicians and New Balance (“at its core, that’s a health business,” Courtemanche argues) to Merck (for Keytruda), Boehringer Ingelheim (equine health) and Genentech (Ocrevus).
“I think Amgen is the only top-20 drug company we don’t represent,” he says. He doesn’t plan to leave well enough alone: “Some people say, ‘Let’s just grow with the clients we already have.’ Well, I’m greedy.”
In the months ahead, look for VMLY&R Health to focus on DTC brands as well as what Tom O’Connell, executive director, advisory, describes as “players who are disrupting the way we deliver health to people today.” He points to medical staffing/home health company Ro Health as a prime example — and target.
As for Courtemanche, he’s clearly thrilled to be leading a unit that, in his mind, checks off all the proverbial boxes. “I’m not going to brag, but I ran into some folks from Omnicom at one of these awards functions,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Everybody’s watching what you’re doing. Everybody’s holding their breath.’ Things are getting really interesting.”