Over the course of a career that saw her cofound two successful agencies and lead three others, Risa Bernstein returned time and again to a phrase that clearly articulated her professional philosophy: Big thinkers think better together.
Charlene Prounis, with whom Bernstein cofounded Accel Healthcare Communications and Flashpoint Medica, remembers the adage being on display in Bernstein’s office in some form or other. Tom Harrison, the agency lifer who backed both of Bernstein’s companies under the Omnicom banner, remembers her using it as a rallying cry.
Bernstein herself says she started living the philosophy before she heard it articulated in that manner (and proceeded to put it on a poster in her office). “To me, partnership and fellowship were always essential,” she explains. “It’s a cliché, but it takes a village. A stool needs all its legs.”
Bernstein imbued that spirit of partnership and good cheer across five agencies (and her own consultancy) in a career that has spanned more than three decades. She entered the advertising world at what she describes as “a real, real small consumer agency.” A new job quickly beckoned — working at a larger agency on Seiko watches — but Bernstein rejected it after enduring a two-hour training session about “how women have to behave around Japanese men, which was so not for me.” She subsequently turned down another post in which she would have worked on Philip Morris business, a proposition she says “was out of the question ethically.”
Bernstein landed in healthcare advertising in 1982, accepting an assistant account executive gig at the fabled Gross Townsend Frank Hoffman (GTFH). From the outset, she knew it was a good fit. “It was magical,” she recalls.
The four partners immediately recognized Bernstein’s strategic skills — “Alan [Gross] always said, ‘I think Risa is more strategic than I am,’” notes GTFH cofounder Jane Townsend — and she quickly ascended the company hierarchy. During the last five of her 16 years with the agency, Bernstein served as managing director and sat on its management committee.
Before long, she found herself in Harrison’s office, listening to his pitch to take over as president of another Omnicom firm. Bernstein, alas, had other plans: She and Prounis had already started bouncing around the idea of founding an agency of their own.
“I told Tom, ‘I’ll entertain your offer if you entertain mine,’” Bernstein recalls. “He said, ‘If you’re serious, bring me a business plan in a week.’”
Harrison, a 2020 MAHF inductee, laughs when asked about that fateful meeting. “Anytime Risa came into my office, I knew A, we were going to have a debate; B, I was going to learn something; and C, she was going to have all the reasons to make me want to do what she was asking,” he says.
He stresses that the idea was a no-brainer: “What she was proposing was something we didn’t already have. It made a boatload of sense.” Just two months later, Accel Healthcare Communications opened its doors. “We probably had that meeting in November and Risa wanted it started at the beginning of the next year,” Harrison continues. “We had around 20 days to figure it out, not six months, and we got it done, including the business cards.”
Bernstein and Prounis led Accel for six years, sticking around through its merger with Corbett Healthcare Group. Shortly thereafter, they found themselves in Harrison’s office again, this time pitching the pure-play ad agency that would become Flashpoint Medica.
“Risa and I were always thinking big,” says Prounis, who was inducted into MAHF in 2019. “We looked at each other and were like, ‘So, want to do this again?’ There wasn’t a lot of back and forth, because we knew what it would take.”
However, right after the new shop opened its doors Bernstein was sidelined by a family tragedy: Her oldest son sustained a severe head injury in a bus accident, prompting her to leave the nascent company for more than a year.
He ultimately recovered and Bernstein took a broader lesson away from the experience. “You can say ‘no’ sometimes. Clients have kids, too, and I encourage all women in this or any business to feel they can do this,” she says. “It’s so nice for the Hall of Fame to think I had a nice career, but my three sons would tell you, I hope, that they were my priority. I never missed anything that mattered.”
Since departing Flashpoint about a decade ago, Bernstein has stayed involved in the agency world via short tours at FCB Health (a fill-in stint as executive director) and Calcium (as EVP, director of strategy). She remains as passionate about the business now as she’s ever been.
“I scratch my head about the paradox between the power and purpose of our industry versus the poor perception,” Bernstein says. “Despite the fact that the pharma industry is so poorly thought of and known mostly for exorbitant pricing and fomenting the opioid crisis, among other negative impressions, it is an industry that is improving and saving lives every day.”
She believes it falls on healthcare marketing and communications agencies to push forward with “the relentless pursuit of authentic, reliable, useful education and information that advances the good and helps people navigate their diseases and some of the darkest moments they may face in their lives.”
To that point, Bernstein has lived some of those moments. “I’ve had breast cancer twice. I’ve been put alone in a room with a video before the surgery with no help or no guide; the same thing happened with the radiation. You sit there and you understand why therapy dropout rates are what they are,” she continues.
Bernstein plans to continue to address such issues in the years ahead. She has no plans to retire anytime soon and is weighing board involvement and other leadership opportunities. “Some part of me wants to work in hospice after all this cancer experience I’ve had too much of,” she says. “I have this passion around ‘scan-xiety,’ which is the kind of thing we can do something about.”
That overarching love of the business is why her imminent MAHF induction has already been cheered by colleagues and competitors alike. “I’m not going to lie: It’s a meaningful moment to me,” Bernstein says. “I watched all the giants whose shoulders I stood on receive this honor. I’m just thrilled it’s my turn.”
Bernstein might never have found her way into medical marketing were it not for fellow inductee Maris Schilling. As Bernstein tells it, the two of them had a common connection: Schilling’s boyfriend worked with the mother of Bernstein’s boyfriend.
“She thought I was a good writer and thought Maris was a phenomenal writer, so she got the two of us to meet. Immediately, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a person I want to be around.’ She was such a powerful force — funny as hell, totally in your face.”
Bernstein didn’t want to write, so Schilling — already ensconced at GTFH — connected her with agency leaders and namesakes Jane Townsend and Alan Gross. “To this day, I thank Maris for my entry into this world,” Bernstein explains. “She was the person who taught me something I tried to teach every single person who comes into this business: You don’t have to know science well to succeed, you just have to not fear it.”
Schilling took a somewhat unusual path into the business. While working as a secretary at Klemtner Advertising, she heard rumblings that a key client wasn’t buying what the agency was selling. Off-handedly, she suggested an idea that not only bridged the divide, but evolved into an award-winning campaign that ran for three years.
From that point onward, the clerical work was handled by somebody else. Following stints on the copy teams at William Douglas McAdams and Lavey Wolff Swift, GTFH hired her as VP, group copy supervisor. Though she stayed for only three years, it was here that Schilling’s star ascended.
“She had an incredibly quick mind,” says Townsend, a founding partner of GTFH and a 2011 MAHF inductee. “As a writer, she didn’t just come up with a clever line because she could. She did her homework and dug into things deeply. She would have been a fabulous and successful writer in any field she chose.”
By way of example, Townsend points to a campaign GTFH created for Squibb’s hydrocortisone in the early 1980s. The central concept was that, if a person’s skin could talk for itself, it would ask for hydrocortisone.
“Maris and I were in California and driving from one place to another, and she just started talking out the copy on the spot: ‘Hi, I’m your skin. When I itch, I scratch,’” Townsend recalls. “It was a wonderful radio commercial and then we turned it into a TV commercial.”
The TV execution faced some pushback. Networks wouldn’t air the commercial because the actor dressed up as the skin — Townsend’s cousin, as it turns out — had a flesh-colored costume deemed too risqué for the era. Nonetheless, the radio ad won a Clio at a time when pharma and health ads rarely received such consideration.
After departing GTFH, Schilling worked in lead creative roles at Kallir Phillips Ross. She left the business briefly to raise a family and later to battle ovarian cancer. Following treatment, she returned to the business as SVP, creative director at LifeBrands and then as a cofounder of Reagent.
Over the years, Schilling worked on any number of high-profile programs. She led the creative and strategy team that helped Tylenol maintain market leadership in the wake of a second poisoning incident and oversaw the evolution of Merck’s Emend from undeveloped molecule with no clear indication to market-topping treatment for chemo-related nausea and vomiting.
As a writer, Schilling helped craft the Patient Bill of Rights — which is still displayed in hospitals to this day — and a skin care manual for nurses of patients receiving EgFR inhibitors. Later in her career, Schilling wrote a play (Cancer, The Musical) and a book (Medicine Avenue) about her life and work experiences, respectively.
“In everything she did, there was never just one idea,” Townsend explains. “She’d do something and then she’d come in and say, ‘OK, here’s another one.’ Two days later, ‘I think this is even better.’ She would keep noodling until she got it perfect in her mind.”
Still, Schilling’s professional legacy is as much about the way she treated her peers as it is about the work they teamed to create. Bernstein highlights her sense of humor (“she was sharp”), while Townsend admiringly calls her “a pusher … but she did it in such a good way. She would make others want to be better.”
Schilling was also decent and progressive-minded at a time when the industry was considerably less so. At KPR, she hired the agency’s first Black copywriter and, amid internal pushback, installed her on a high-profile piece of Johnson & Johnson business.
“She was principled and smart, and she pushed for right and better,” Townsend says. “I wish she were here to teach it to everyone else.”
Schilling died of lung cancer on November 17, 2020. She had learned about her imminent MAHF induction a few weeks prior.
Some 35 years ago, Ron Souza shared some of his thoughts about the future of pharmaceutical marketing with his colleagues. “For us in advertising, the challenges and opportunities have never been greater, with change all around,” he wrote. “Relationships with clients, and what they require of us, are changing. Channels and methods of distribution are changing — in an evolving media world that is more complex, faster and restless with innovation.”
Over the course of a nearly four-decade career in and around healthcare, that wasn’t the only time Souza proved prescient. After graduating from Northeastern University’s College of Pharmacy, he started his career in the hospital realm. But as he ascended to a director position at Newington’s Children’s Hospital in Newington, Connecticut, Souza began to question what came next.
“I got some good management experience, but there was nowhere to go with it,” he recalls. “I was looking for a bigger track to run on, I guess.”
That management experience ultimately served Souza well. He made his way to Revlon, where he oversaw what he calls “a great melting pot of creative people. We didn’t have a whole lot to sell, but we sold the hell out of it.” Following a short stop at Endo Pharmaceuticals, where he worked on the team that introduced opioid overdose treatment Narcan, Souza entered the agency world.
He thrived amid its energy and spirit of camaraderie. Arriving at the venerable Rolf Werner Rosenthal in 1974, Souza quickly made a name for himself as both a plugged-in manager and a new-business magnet. Products and brands he touched during his RWR tenure included Sudafed, Actifed, AZT (the first-in-class HIV therapy) and Marion’s calcium channel blocker Cardizem.
Souza remembers the latter as among his greatest achievements.
“The only edge it had over the competition was a slight advantage in side effects, so after a couple of sessions we came up with the yellow hard hat that said ‘Safety First.’ We thought doctors would see hard hats wherever they drove, because it was a time when cities were growing and buildings were going up everywhere,” he explains. “We went in for the presentation and we all wore hard hats. Three days later — ‘OK, you won.’ It was one of the most fun things I worked on.” The campaign created an enduring brand association and won numerous awards.
Over the course of his time at RWR and Ogilvy & Mather (which snapped up RWR in 1984), Souza earned a reputation as one of the agency world’s good guys. Even though people who entered the business under him have thrived, moving on to found and lead firms such as Harrison Star Wiener & Beitler, Sandler Communications and Botto Roessner Horne & Messenger, Souza downplays his role as a mentor.
“Being in a place as nice as RWR, I was able to apply the management experience I had in the past and it all kind of worked out,” he says. “We were always proud when our people said, ‘Wow, this is the nicest place I’ve come to in the industry.’”
Long-retired and a great-grandfather of three, Souza couldn’t be happier or more gracious about receiving the hall’s call. “Recognition is a wonderful thing,” he adds. “Getting the award will be exciting, but reading what the people who nominated me had to say about me — it’s just wonderful to know that people respected what I did.”
The 2021 Awards Dinner is tentatively scheduled for July 29th at The Pierre hotel in New York City. Dinner tickets can be purchased at www.mahf.com/gala