The healthcare communications arm of Publicis Groupe is bringing two of its digital agencies together in a move designed to bolster them against the tide of healthcare advertising shops beefing up e-promotion capabilities.

The agencies, Razorfish Health and Publicis Healthware International, will unite under the name Razorfish Healthware effective immediately, the network is expected to announce today. Razorfish Health, based in the US, and Healthware’s 10 regional offices—which span the US, Europe and the Far East—will be re-branded under the new moniker. The two had no reported client conflicts.


The merger gives Publicis Healthcare Communications Group (PHCG) a business unit with a substantial US presence and a global reach that offers three main services: digital, the main part of the business; a consulting practice to advise clients on strategy; and a technology hub that will build products and license them. The agencies have done work for clients including Genentech, GE Medical and Rite Aid.

Roberto Ascione, who has been president of Publicis Healthware International, will lead the 300-400-person entity. “Having scale in the US market, combined with this global reach, makes a very compelling unit overnight,” Ascione told MM&M in an exclusive interview.

The merger prunes the number of brands in the PHCG house from 11 to 10, including the digital agency Digitas Health. Rosetta, another purely digital shop with a healthcare practice, resides within Publicis Groupe’s VivaKi unit.

Reporting roles for managers are also changing. Razorfish Healthware will no longer report up through Digitas Health, as Razorfish Health had done. Katy Thorbahn, who has been Razorfish Health managing director, will now report to Ascione and will be part of his leadership team, and some of the unit’s ex-US people will report to her.

Razorfish Health, which was spun out of Razorfish as a standalone shop after the agency was bought by Publicis in 2009, has been co-led by the two presidents of Publicis sibling Digitas Health. The two, Alex von Plato and Michael du Toit, remain in their posts but have gained additional responsibilities at the PHCG level.

The consolidation comes at a time when more healthcare ad agencies are bringing on talent with digital skills and integrating services such as the ability to build websites and mobile apps and execute other tactics involving social media. 

Given that agencies of record are building these skills, “There’s a school of thought that says that the pure-play digital agency shouldn’t exist any longer, but I believe there’s a place for both,” Ascione acknowledged. 

How can the combination of Razorfish with Healthware help the two pure-play digital shops evolve in the face of this threat? The new unit will attack new market spaces. “For the Publicis Groupe, Razorfish [and] VivaKi are punching the edge, and we’re following suit by organizing in our health-focused vertical way, the same kind of approach,” said Nick Colucci, president and CEO of PHCG.

That is, trying to foster innovation on their own. Razorfish Healthware will seek to develop information strategies at the regional and global level for companies that are moving into the digital realm and will try to predict what experiences or new paradigms medical professionals and consumers will want to engage in next, such as medically prescribed apps or drugs bundled with an app, the executives said.

Both Ascione and Colucci cited WellDoc’s success in getting its DiabetesManager app approved by the FDA, and subsequently signing on payors, as an example of the kind of space Razorfish Healthware wants to get into. “We can be the company that will assist you to embrace the right technology to make that happen, the company that can provide the right consultancy services in order to transform your pharma company,” Ascione said.

The agency will still maintain close relationships with full-service agencies of record, which are quickly becoming credible digital players in their own right. Ascione sees his agency connecting with them and serving as an engine for digital innovation and products. “Building a software product requires a software factory, and you simply cannot have that within a communication agency environment,” he said.