Fingerpaint has acquired Leaderboard Branding, a consultancy whose healthcare work includes global branding for biopharma and medical device clients. 

The investment in the four-year-old firm is expected to increase Fingerpaint’s international reach and expand services to better support clients in earlier stages of the commercialization process. It’s Fingerpaint’s first pick-up since taking on equity partner Knox Lane in December, and the agency’s second in the past year. Terms of the deal were undisclosed.

Leaderboard managing partner Brannon Cashion joins Fingerpaint’s operating board, reporting to Fingerpaint founder Ed Mitzen. The firm’s 30-person staff will continue to operate autonomously in its home base of Charlotte. 

“I’m relying on [Cashion] to run the business with his other two partners,” said Mitzen. “There will be no changes to their management or staff.” Fingerpaint will provide assistance with operational functions like finance, recruiting and marketing.

Leaderboard, which works with about 250 clients (many of whom are multinational manufacturers), fills a specific gap in Fingerpaint’s services. As a branding firm, Mitzen explained, Leaderboard “gets in earlier in the product life cycle than we do, so that was of interest to us. And we’re looking for businesses that can really help round out our ability to be a best-in-class commercial partner.”

Shamik Patel, partner at Knox Lane, agreed, adding that Leaderboard’s client roster complements Fingerpaint’s. “There is a great ability on both sides to continue cross-selling,” he said. 

Leaderboard typically starts working with clients in phase one on non-proprietary naming and early scientific lexicon. It then hands off the assignment prior to the new drug application (NDA) or biologic license application (BLA) stage, when additional marketing services would come into play. Being part of a larger team, said Cashion, means Leaderboard can bring value to that transition. 

When asked why the deal, which was completed a couple of weeks ago, makes sense for Leaderboard, Cashion responded, “We have people that have been with this asset for two or three years. So it’s not really, ‘Okay, we have to ramp up another team.’ It’s almost a hand-in-glove kind of fit.”

The firm, which generates about $10 million in annual revenue, had found itself at a crossroads. “In order to keep growing, do we go out and put an operational infrastructure in place ourselves, or do we go out and find a partner who talks like us and has the same culture and, more importantly, understands the vision that we have to grow? That was probably the number-one reason why this was the right time,” Cashion continued.

Product naming and branding is a complex process, especially because, as therapeutic approvals proliferate, names must become more unique. Additionally, companies launching drugs internationally must pass muster with a variety of regulators. Each time a suggested name is rejected, companies must resubmit for another six-month review, Cashion noted, adding that Leaderboard’s methodology aims to avoid those pitfalls.

“We’ve been through the approvals and we’ve been through the rejections,” he said. “The health authorities reject at times 50-plus percent of names that manufacturers submit, and it’s due to name confusion that potentially could cause medication error. It’s a big topic at the FDA, EMA, Health Canada and some others.”

The promise of helping clients avoid that extended process gives Fingerpaint an additional selling point. “Leaderboard has a much lower rejection rate than the overall market, so we can sell on speed,” said Mitzen. 

It’s not the only one of Leaderboard’s naming services that may have attracted Mitzen and Patel. Clinical trial branding – helping drugmakers recruit investigators and participants to studies – is one of the firm’s fastest-growing areas. 

“If your competitors are doing trial branding and you’re still relying on the long set of numbers and letters that is on, it’s a hard comparison,” Cashion quipped.

The Leaderbard deal follows Fingerpaint’s launch of cell and gene therapy marketing consultancy Photo51 last June and acquisition of market access advisor 1798 four months prior to that. As was the case with several of its other acquisitions, Fingerpaint and Leaderboard have some history: Mitzen said he and a few colleagues flew down to Charlotte recently for a socially distanced meeting with Cashion and staff, a meeting which Mitzen described as a “homecoming” of sorts.  

“They hadn’t seen each other in about a year because everybody’s been working remotely, and it was just a really wonderful time,” he recalled. “Both groups are really fired up to do this. We have a lot of connectivity. A lot of people in our organization have worked with Brannon and his team. There was a general excitement about, ‘Oh, we’re putting the band back together. This is awesome.’”

That’s not to say plenty of work didn’t go into confirming that Leaderboard was a strategic fit.

“When creative people think of naming, they immediately think, ‘Oh, that’s what we do.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but not really,’” Mitzen joked. “For these guys, it’s much more scientific about handwriting and linguistics analysis, the medication-error issues that they have to face, the trademark work.”

Fingerpaint saw revenue rise 60% last year to $85 million and the agency is forecasting $130 million in 2021 – $140 million with Leaderboard’s revenue included. Its head count stands at 450.

With Knox Lane providing the financial backing, Fingerpaint’s shopping spree may only be getting started. Asked about other offerings he and Patel are evaluating, Mitzen said he’s been exploring data (potentially to strengthen the agency’s Shift analytics platform), medical affairs and virtual technology.

Said Mitzen: “We get a lot of calls from our customers saying, ‘My rep is still stuck in her basement. How can you get her in front of thought leaders or high prescribers?’”