Tom McDonnell’s love for the business was cemented months into his first job, when a patient thanked him for facilitating access to her thyroid medication. Here, the Shire and Abbott vet discusses heroes, his “obsession” with cell and gene therapy and the sophistication of simplicity.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

That’s an easy one: A Philadelphia firefighter. My grandfather was a World War II veteran and a minor league baseball player, then he came back and became a firefighter. He didn’t talk or boast about it, but he was very proud that he risked his life to save people. I’m not physically out saving lives like he did, but I like to think I’m contributing in some small way.

How did you get into medical marketing?

I started out as a pharma sales rep selling Synthroid for thyroid disease. One day I had my samples out in a doctor’s office, when a patient came up to me and said, “Oh, you work on Synthroid? It’s really changed my life. Thank you.” That happened within my first couple of months on the job and it changed my outlook.

Who helped you out along the way?

I’ve been blessed with many different mentors. But if I had to pick one, it would be Mike Yasick, who was a leader in Shire’s neuroscience business. Mike had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome; his father and brothers also had it, and they all passed away before the age of 50. But Mike didn’t let it keep him from living a full life. He taught me that every day is a gift, that we can and should work hard but to make sure we’re always having fun. I’ve carried that lesson with me.

Who inspires you?

I saw a clip the other day of John Wooden, the former UCLA basketball coach, talking about his philosophy of working with players. His definition of what it takes to succeed — “are you able to look at yourself in the mirror and say you’ve given the best you’re capable of giving?” — drives me. That’s all you can do, right? The results will be the results.

What’s something that people don’t realize about the medical marketing business?

Honestly, how hard it is. In the U.S., there’s almost no end to the amount of scientific information we can communicate and there are so many different stakeholders — physicians, patients, payers, people on the policy side. Also, everything around us is regulated.

The way I try to handle it is by talking about the art of simplicity. To me, simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication. The question I always ask is: OK, what can we take out of this to make the message even clearer? It’s easy to be complex and just throw everything out there on a wall or a screen. Simple is harder.

What are the essential items in your workspace?

I write and think at the same time, so I need a lot of paper and a lot of books. I also like personal effects — pictures and different pieces of art. I have my Mike Schmidt and Jimmy Rollins bats. There’s a photo of Abraham Lincoln, who’s one of my heroes. He stuck to what he believed in even in the face of almost everybody disagreeing with him.

What’s something about you that your colleagues don’t know?

I am working to become a painter and a mixed media artist. Working on the agency side and being exposed to our creative team has brought out my creativity. Two of my children are in college, so I’m trying to convince my wife to let me convert one of the extra rooms into an art studio. She’s not buying it.

What is the most pressing item on your professional to-do list?

I am obsessed with gene and cell therapy and the potential curative nature of those scientific discoveries. My biggest career goal is to be the leading commercialization partner in gene and cell therapy. I know it sounds like a sales pitch, but it’s not. The science is the most motivating thing I’ve encountered in my life.