Agency prexies cop to weakness about as often as they wear cargo shorts into the office. So it comes as a surprise when, at the start of a conversation about his firm’s performance over the last year, Natrel Communications co-founder Allan Trent admits to some degree of dissatisfaction with the company’s creative offering.

“We know what’s good and what isn’t. In order to compete, we knew we had to pick up our creative output a few notches,” Trent says.

To that end, at the start of 2009 he and Natrel co-founder David Nakamura charged senior vice president/chief creative officer Ed Shankman with revamping the firm’s creative. “We had to go out and find account people who can do the work that David and I can do,” Trent continues. “They had to be so well-rounded that our clients would have the same high degree of confidence in them.” The creative upgrade proved the year’s biggest challenge, but it ultimately paid off: “Ed found the right mix of people to give the agency and our clients a world-class creative team. We can go up against anyone.”

The proof lies in Natrel’s new-business record over the last 12 months. The agency added 15 brands and only lost one (United Therapeutics’ Remodulin hypertension drug, in the wake of a management change). Key additions included Meda Pharmaceuticals’ Edluar (for insomnia), Eyetech’s Macugen (for age-related macular degeneration), Eisai’s Lusedra (a sedative for use by anesthesiologists) and Endo Pharmaceuticals’ Frova (for migraines).

Additionally, Natrel picked up additional assignments from existing clients CSL Behring, Sanofi-Aventis and Terumo.

Trent attributes the new-business momentum to both the improved creative team as well as to the agency’s positioning. A few years ago, Trent and Nakamura sat down and made a deliberate choice not to chase big-name pharma firms, and instead focus their attention on specialty products and the biotech niche. “That’s what we’re good at,” Trent says breezily.

At the same time, Natrel shrugs off the intensified effort that such assignments often demand. “If you have a big Pfizer brand, it’s easy to collect that fee and not have to do a lot of work, Our clients have smaller budgets, so we have to work twice as hard as we would for Pfizer or Schering or Merck,” he continues. “But that makes us true partners.”

Another benefit of all the hard work, Trent says, is an uptick in the number of clients that stick around for a while. “The business we get, we retain it,” he stresses. “Years back, Natrel had a history of winning business and then losing it a couple of years later. That’s no longer the case.” A guarantee that either Trent or Nakamura will be in the room for key strategic meetings probably has something to do with that as well.

Natrel added a handful of employees last year, pushing the firm’s total to 60, and moved into new North Jersey digs. Looking forward, the company anticipates additional growth, likely past the $15 million mark.

While Natrel will continue to focus its energies on small- to mid-size clients, it’s otherwise thinking globally. Last year, the firm’s global branding initiative for CSL Behring proved enough of a success that Natrel has taken some of those tactics and strategies, and spun them into a dedicated global branding process. The firm has already offered it to existing and prospective clients.

“David and myself were barely involved, to be honest. It was all Ed and Nicole [Hyland, senior vice president/director of client services],” Trent says. “But it’s one more thing that we can do that we couldn’t before.”