Medical marketing is an insular business. Labor in it long enough, especially on the agency side, and you’ll inevitably encounter familiar faces time and time again.

But even by those standards, the two members of the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame’s Class of 2024, longtime Ogilvy Health exec David Chapman and Wishbone and Calcium founder Steven Michaelson, share an extensive history of friendship and collaboration.

“Steven and I have known each other at least 25 years, maybe more,” Chapman says. “I’ve always enjoyed being with him, because he’s such a positive person. We got on the phone when we heard about this and it was like, ‘How did a couple of knuckleheads like us wind up in the Hall of Fame?’”

Michaelson feels similarly warm toward his fellow inductee. “Dave, he was one of the guys I always looked up to, because even though we’re similar in age I got into the pharma business later than he did,” he recalls. “I was lucky to have such a good and smart guy shepherding me through. He always had a good word.”

Their paths first crossed in the early 1990s. They will cross again on February 8 at New York City’s Pierre Hotel when they co-headline the 2024 Medical Advertising Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Here are the roads David Chapman and Steven Michaelson traveled to get there.

David Chapman

Growing up in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, David Chapman “didn’t have big goals,” as he put it some 70 years later. For a stretch he wanted to be the next Johnny Carson — “you know, stay up late and talk to people and be funny” — but his upbringing limited the scope of his imagination.

That changed when he won a New York State Regents Scholarship and headed upstate to Vassar College, from which he received a B.A. in geology. “That’s where the world revealed itself to me,” he recalls. After graduation, Chapman moved back to New York City with the goal of “becoming famous, though I had absolutely no idea doing what.” He went to work in sales, first pushing fabric and then office furniture. It soon become clear the job wasn’t a good fit.

“I didn’t like selling stuff. I liked the idea of selling stuff; I liked writing down on paper why somebody should buy office furniture,” he says. A contact of sorts — his dad’s boss’ son — knew somebody at Bates Advertising, who explained to the young Chapman that what he liked to do was actually a paying job.

And so it was that Chapman set about pursuing an entry-level gig as a copywriter. It took him some time to get his foot in the door — Chapman still has the 50 or so rejection letters he received from major-league New York ad agencies — but he ultimately landed at Alden Advertising, a small, independent shop that, he remembers, “would work for any client who would hire us.”

Chapman busied himself on travel and eyewear accounts, but medical devices also made it into his topical mix. When his portfolio found its way to a headhunter, the person suggested that he play up the medical-related work (notably, on Propper Manufacturing’s first-to-market rigid sigmoidoscope).

“What they said was, ‘Yeah, I need healthcare experience. Throw out the travel ads,’” Chapman recalls.

Soon, Chapman was a full-on medical marketer. He spent two years at Ruvane-Leverte before joining Kallir, Philips, Ross (KPR) at the peak of its influence. On the back of breakthrough work for Johnson & Johnson, Chapman rose to the ranks of creative director and director of strategic planning.

When he was passed over for a promotion to chief creative officer, Chapman departed KPR to serve as managing partner at Nelson Communications. Two years later, industry legends John Zweig and Thomas Ferguson brought him into their rapidly growing medical marketing firm, which was purchased by WPP “about two seconds after I got there,” Chapman says.

Thomas G. Ferguson Associates became a major breadwinner for the global communications giant. “WPP hardly talked to us those first few years,” he continues. “Pharma was the goose laying the golden egg. They loved us.” Before long, Chapman found himself, Zweig and other company leaders in front of WPP leader Martin Sorrell, making the case that the agency needed to go global in a bigger way.

“He said, ‘I agree, but we don’t have the money to go on a buying spree. Figure it out,’” Chapman says. That kickstarted the process through which 13 agency brands were ultimately united under the CommonHealth banner. Chapman stayed with the company, which morphed into Ogilvy Health, until 2020.

The last role he held at Ogilvy Health, director of global new business, saw him author winning consolidation pitches for large pieces of J&J and Pfizer business. Chapman, though, wasn’t as enamored with the management roles that preceded it.

“The higher up you get, the more time you spend managing client and people problems,” he says. “The challenge is always keeping your hand in the creativity part of the business, which is what I loved.”

To that point, Chapman remains extremely proud of his body of work. He points to the “great things” he and his teams accomplished on behalf of J&J’s women’s healthcare franchise and the establishment of the company’s oncology business. He similarly counts working with Schering-Plough as a career highlight, in large part due to the overwhelming success of its Claritin branding.

“It’s still what we’re using today,” Chapman says proudly. (And note the use of we in his response.) “What was great about Schering is you’d come to them with an idea. They’d come right back — ‘OK, let’s do it.’ The only problem was that they sometimes meant, ‘Let’s do it tomorrow.’”

Chapman is similarly proud of his legacy as a mentor of younger talent, which naturally extends to his children. In his MAHF nomination package, two of his three daughters weighed in on their dad in a way that clearly delighted him.

“David Chapman is a pharmaceutical advertising legend who helps alleviate symptoms of being alive, like doldrums, angst and boredom .… Side effects of Dave might include: Being out-fashioned by your be-paisley-ed, double-denimed, niche-T-shirted, beret-ed, love-bead-bedecked dad,” wrote Catherine Chapman, a DE&I strategy consultant.

“The rules of being a pharma copywriter, according to David Chapman, as told by his most successful attempt at creating one: 1. Red Bull has not been demonstrated in clinical studies to give you wings. In what we do, there is no room for what is not quantifiably accurate. That keeps us honest! And honesty is important,” wrote Sarah Chapman, a copywriter — what else? — at Oliver Agency.

Chapman is very much enjoying his retirement. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had, even better than the summer when I collected unemployment insurance. I said to my parents, ‘Wait, all I have to do is sign my name and I get free money?’” he jokingly recalls.

An even better gig is imminent, as Chapman will become a grandparent for the first time within the next few months. “I’m told that I should have my fun now, because once I’m a grandparent it’s going to be my job,” he says. That fun includes working toward his travel agent’s license and taking acting and singing classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in downtown NYC, alongside a host of teenagers and twentysomethings.

“It keeps me connected to the rhythm and vibrancy of the city,” Chapman says.

Potentially up next: working as an adjunct professor. “The college has a big advertising program and it would benefit from having a healthcare component. We’ll see what happens,” he continues.

The only diversion Chapman won’t entertain, it seems, is a return to medical marketing in some peripheral way. “I love the business and everything about it, but it’s moved quickly beyond my depth of understanding,” he says without a hint of regret in his voice. “The methodologies have leapfrogged me. I think it’s better left to the new professionals, rather than me sitting around and saying, ‘Well, in my day .…’”

Steven Michaelson

When Steven Michaelson was chairman of the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame, he often had the privilege of informing nominees they had cleared the hall’s high bar for induction. So, when his phone rang with the same news in late October, he felt a little déjà vu and plenty of pride, especially given that he had only announced his retirement six months prior. 

He does not, alas, remember much else. “I was sick,” he says with a laugh. “I got a little ripped off. I missed the moment.”

That moment was hard-earned. Born in Newark, Michaelson’s childhood in Parsippany, New Jersey, was colored by what he now realizes was an undiagnosed learning disability. “I had dyslexia and ADD. In high school, I could barely read,” he says plainly.

However, what Michaelson could do was draw. (“And I could do it better than anybody else,” he stresses.) He believes the combination of his talent and his learning disability made a career in the creative world something of an inevitability for him.

“My decision about what I wanted to do was predetermined for me. Art was my way out,” he adds. “They treated me like the star quarterback. ‘Oh, he’s great at art, let’s push him through school.’”

Michaelson enrolled at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, where he studied advertising — and encountered his first critic. “For one of my classes, I did this campaign for toilet paper. The instructor came over to me and said, ‘You might want to think about trying another major.’” Michaelson’s response, which would repeat itself in various situations over the course of his professional life: You think I can’t do it? Well, I’ll show you.

After receiving his certificate in advertising design, Michaelson transferred to Pratt Institute, where he graduated with a B.F.A. degree. His primary aim was to work as a painter and illustrator, and he had some success selling his artwork. To bolster his income, he took a job at a generalist ad agency, where he contributed to campaigns for Ford, David’s Cookies and Sasson Jeans.

“I thought my advertising would pay for my painting, but advertising and communications design started to take up my whole being,” Michaelson recalls. “One arrow was going up, the other was going down.”

Before long, Michaelson had established himself in pharmaceutical advertising, with posts of increasing responsibility at KPR, FCB, Harrison and Star and Robert A. Becker. Zocor, Glucophage, Plavix and Ortho Cept were among the blockbuster brands he helped boost during that period.

However, once he ascended into what he calls “the inner circle” at Robert A. Becker, Michaelson chafed at the headaches that came with it. “I thought my job would be easier and better. Instead, it was, ‘What have you done for me lately?’” He left the firm in 1998 and founded Wishbone a few months later.

It was there that his entrepreneurial instincts fully kicked in. For all intents and purposes a one-man band, Michaelson called up his industry friends to “see if they could break me off a piece, get me a little business.” One of those calls led to the company’s first project: designing a “not for resale” sticker for Novartis.

“I was so happy to get that. I did around 20 layouts for that tiny little sticker,” he says. Within six months, Michaelson had more Novartis work than he knew what to do with — “all the stuff it didn’t want to give to its AOR, basically.”

A visit to Novartis’ offices helped illuminate the path forward. “I get there and go to the reception area, then the person at the desk calls up my contact in the back and says, ‘The agency’s here.’ I looked around and thought, ‘I’m the agency? I gotta get more people.’”

Before too long, Wishbone had added a writer and art director to its ranks and Bristol Myers Squibb to its client roster. The missing piece of the puzzle was strategy, but Michaelson knew where to find his top candidate: across the dinner table.

At the time, his wife, Judy Capano, was a McCann Healthcare Worldwide EVP celebrated for her strategic chops. “I said, ‘I know we never wanted to work together, but I need a chief strategy officer. If it’s not going to be you, it’s gotta be someone else. Then I rattled off some names,” Michaelson says. “I don’t know what she thought of those names, but she came on board. It was very ‘Burn the boats!’”

Together, they grew Wishbone into a $15 million firm and, in 2010, sold it to Rosetta Marketing Group. When Publicis acquired Rosetta a year later, it eliminated the Wishbone brand name. Michaelson and Capano departed soon thereafter.

He left with one major regret. “I wish I would have left my people in better hands,” he explains. “The creative director of copy was being fired and I couldn’t do anything about it. I went into my office and cried. I knew I’d be out soon too.”

That emotional response surprised exactly nobody. “One thing that isn’t in dispute is the size of Steven’s heart,” wrote IPG Health group president Renee Mellas, who worked alongside Michaelson at Wishbone, in a letter supporting his MAHF nomination. “Even in the rough-and-tumble world of advertising, Steven always managed to keep his kindness and generosity intact. Which is no small thing.”

Retirement didn’t suit him, though. A year into it, Michaelson received a call from a former client who needed marketing support. When Michaelson demurred, the client responded, “Come on, I know you’re not going to sit on the sideline forever.”

The client’s instinct proved correct. “I was out in East Hampton. I jumped up and ran into the city,” Michaelson says with a laugh. “‘Hey, let’s put together an agency!’ We got the band back together.”

Thus, Calcium was born in 2012, and the build-up process commenced anew. “I started again with, ‘We’ll show them!’ I went to people and asked if they could cut me off a piece again. But there weren’t any pieces to cut off, because digital companies were getting them all. It was a tough time to be a traditional agency.”

To adapt to this new digital reality, Michaelson sold Calcium in 2014 to Star Group, a communications network. Star, in turn, paired Calcium with another recent acquisition, Vox Medica, and its own healthcare arm, Star Life Sciences. In theory, the merger made sense. In practice, well .…

“Great idea, awful execution,” Michaelson says succinctly.

When Star Group imploded in 2015, Michaelson and Capano bought the organization in a bankruptcy sale. In doing so, they assumed around $4 million in debt. But they also reclaimed control of an entity with strong digital and medical capabilities — and the Calcium moniker.

By the end of 2016, Calcium had paid off the debt. Creatively and strategically, the company flourished, with work from BMS and United Therapeutics providing a solid foundation. In 2021, Calcium — now a $50 million agency — sold itself to private equity firm NexPhase Capital. Before retiring in March, Michaelson helped engineer the creation of Calcium + Company, a mini-network that houses Calcium, oncology unit Amino, medcomms group Vitamin MD and PR division PRotein.

Given his entrepreneurial bent, several of Michaelson’s peers believe this retirement will last as long as his previous one. He’s quick to dismiss such speculation.

“I know how to do this business and I’m really good at it, but I’ve been white-knuckling it with my learning disability all this time,” he says. “I have to work twice as hard as everybody else, because the reading and the email takes a lot out of me.

“Also, at 67 years old, how much do you really want to do? There are not a lot of people in our industry at that age. I was getting a little tired and I didn’t want to become irrelevant.”

As for his professional legacy, Michaelson hopes to be remembered for doing right by his people and for the medical marketing business writ large. But he’d also like his successes to serve as evidence that good guys don’t finish last.

“I’ve been blessed with a little bit of talent, but really — I’m a kid with learning disabilities from Newark. How the hell did I end up here?” he adds. “I’ve been very fortunate.”