When Danny Gardner matriculated at the University of Maryland in the fall of 2013, his current job didn’t exist.

Sure, social media had already started to consume everything in its path. But while pharma companies and other health-adjacent organizations were certainly paying attention to Twitter, Facebook and the like, few had established a formal social-listening function, much less a data-centric social-intelligence hub.

Gardner, at the time, was a would-be accountant whose interest in healthcare was mostly piqued by proximity to companies headquartered nearby his hometown of West Orange, New Jersey. Fewer than eight years later, he’s the engineer of GlaxoSmithKline’s social intelligence offering for the company’s consumer healthcare brands, including Advil, Centrum and Theraflu.

His ascent into the high-level role is among the surest signs that pharma companies are finally willing to throw open their doors to talent capable of transforming their data and analytics offerings. However, Gardner doesn’t see it that way. Rather, he believes the industry has experienced its social media “Eureka!” moment, and that he happened to be in the right place at the right time.

“There’s a great interest in using data and analytics and social media as a catalyst for innovation and insight and direction,” he says. “It’s important to be on the digital front lines, which is where our consumers are.”

It wasn’t long into his college tenure that Gardner made the decision to transition his major to economics. However, during his studies, he held a handful of high-profile internships — at New Jersey’s Department of the Treasury, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of the Treasury — which opened him up to different career paths. He also taught himself how to code during his senior year of college, which opened him up to others.

Immediately after graduating, Gardner started to pursue his MBA degree at American University’s Kogod School of Business on a part-time basis. He also secured the job that set him on the path to his current destination — as a social media data analyst at the W2O Group.

He was immediately taken by the startup-like environment — the company had just acquired social media consultancy Marketeching, which put him to work in “this little back room in a little office in New Hope, Pennsylvania” — as well as the passion and intelligence of his new colleagues. He also appreciated one of the lifestyle-related perks: “I wouldn’t have to wear a tie and jacket anymore.”

It was there that Gardner’s future came into focus. “It was very fast-paced and we all wore a lot of different hats,” he recalls. “But I was able to build up all these skill sets — everything with social media and social intelligence, insights, storytelling.”

Within two years, Pfizer came calling and installed Gardner in the type of analyst role usually held by people with a decade or more of industry experience. “The job was managerial-level, so they had to downgrade my title,” he cracks. When Pfizer’s consumer unit was merged into GSK’s consumer healthcare group, Gardner shifted over to GSK.

You’d think one of the healthcare world’s top organizations — and one of the top groups within that organization — would have had substantial resources committed to social listening and social intelligence. You’d think wrong: Gardner was largely left to run the operation by himself, which was scary and liberating in equal parts.

“When I got to Pfizer, the company didn’t have benchmarks or historical context for anything I was doing,” he says. “They had it for other areas of the business, but not social listening. So that was a little bit crazy.”

At the same time, Gardner was challenged and flattered by the trust his bosses had in him. “There was this sense of ‘how could they let a guy so junior make all these decisions and do all this work?’ but it was still the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I was 24 and I was the go-to guy for so many things. It felt too good to be true.”

Since then, Gardner has managed social listening and business intelligence reporting across GSK’s 30 or so brands in seven categories. He’s also building out the organization’s social intelligence offering.

“The possibility of what’s-next and what-if — that’s what fuels me,” Gardner says.

CMI Media Group associate director, paid social Callie Smith agrees, touting Gardner’s “unique thirst for knowledge across all things digital.” By way of example, she notes that Gardner was ahead of the curve on TikTok’s rise and the emergence of social audio, among other budding phenomena.

“Danny is constantly asking smart questions to better understand how these things impact the digital ecosystem,” Smith adds.

He’s also eager to ask about new ways to give back. Having achieved at a young age what it takes most industry data and social media wonks years to accomplish, Gardner is generous with his time. He sits on the board of directors at Social Media Day PHL and handles a range of market research tasks for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA).

“I always wonder, ‘How can I use my skills and power for good, and have fun doing it?’” Gardner says with a laugh before turning serious. “For the HBA in particular, there are conditions that exist in society that give me an unfair advantage due to my gender. Some of the smartest people I know and the biggest advocates in my life are women, so there has to be something I can do to contribute and maybe help close the pay gap even a little bit.”

Gardner is equally effusive about his work as a mentor for ANA Foundation and Advertising Research Foundation programs. “It’s the most important thing anyone can do, even as a young professional,” he continues. “Lots of these students are first-generation college students who come from lower-income backgrounds, and it’s so hard for them to break into this industry without somebody not that far removed from college giving them advice and perspective.”

As for his work at GSK, Gardner hopes that recent successes will help him make a stronger case for expanding the scope of it. He’d like to add a few people to his current team — which still consists of him alone, though there are like-minded individuals dotted throughout the organization as well as some agency support —and he believes GSK brands would be well-served by an expansion of his current purview.

“Influencer marketing — I’m trying to pressure the company to do this,” he says. “It’s a $15 billion industry. We need measurement tactics and some form of data collection and harvesting. It’s gotta happen.”

But even as Gardner pushes for more people and more responsibility, he’s keenly aware of how fortunate he is — to have had encouraging bosses at W2O, Pfizer and GSK, and that his particular expertise has become a must-have skill at any number of organizations, in health and elsewhere. This is not somebody who takes his situation for granted.

“What we have today is leagues beyond what I started with,” he stresses. “I had literally nothing; it took me three weeks just to get a laptop.”

And while Gardner is still keen to “grow into what this role can be grown into,” as he puts it, he carries himself with a
broader-picture sense of perspective that belies his young age.

“You realize that not everything needs to move at the speed of light for it to work,” he continues. “This industry evolves and evolves and evolves. We haven’t even started to reach our potential. I just want to be there when we do.”