Real Chemistry’s North American revenue surged 35% to $439 million in 2021, from $324 million the year prior, the agency reported Thursday. 

It was a year in which the firm not only continued its acquisitions spree, but rebranded itself and cemented a managerial succession plan, as founder and former CEO Jim Weiss decided to hand the reins to consulting veteran Shankar Narayanan. Weiss moved to the role of agency chairman and took a position as executive advisor with Real Chemistry’s private-equity backer, New Mountain Capital. 

Narayanan assumed his new role January 3. His main challenge involves integrating the nearly dozen acquisitions made over the last roughly two years and bringing the agency’s full capabilities to bear at its top biopharma customers, who range from Pfizer and Galderma to CVS Health and Johnson & Johnson.

Swoop and IPM.ai, both of which were acquired last year, filled out the agency’s analytics skillset. The firms specialize in using machine learning, artificial intelligence and real-world data to solve healthcare challenges, like identifying undiagnosed or misdiagnosed patients suffering from rare diseases. Brought into the fold in 2020 were creative shop 21Grams and influencer firm starpower

Including ex-U.S. revenue, turnover rose 36% to $475 million, from $349 million in 2020. Of that, 31% is organic growth, with the other 5% coming from Swoop and IPM.ai, said global president Jennifer Gottlieb. New clients include Amazon Care, Dexcom and Vertex, along with work from Adagio Therapeutics, DayOne and Immunovant.

On the talent front, the agency hired more than 850 new employees. Full-time U.S. staff grew 21% to 1,627, from 1,350 in 2020. On a global basis, the workforce grew by 22% to 1,848 from 1,519.

With the Great Resignation upon us, “We’re in a complicated time in terms of people,” said Gottlieb. 

The agency has intensified efforts to find people from consulting and health-tech firms. It’s seen some success on that front, including recent recruits Brian Gibbons, chief people officer, who hails from Apple, and Michael Otner, chief legal officer, from Medidata Solutions. 

“We’re definitely looking in areas where people understand the health ecosystem – the full 360 – and doubling down on people from the innovation area,” she said, adding that most of Real Chemistry’s hires continue to come from other agencies and biopharma companies. 

A year after the agency formerly known as W2O became Real Chemistry, Gottlieb recalled the project as being more than a typical rebrand. 

“It was very important, after doing so many acquisitions in a virtual environment, that we didn’t just, like, pull everybody in under the hood of W2O,” she explained. “We needed to redefine the organization to better represent where we were going,” especially given that the firm had just bought a number of companies that are not in the traditional agency space.

With the shift to specialty drugs and rare disease therapies boosting the need for disease awareness and patient/physician education, supporting biopharma medical affairs teams is one area poised for rapid growth, Narayanan predicted. Ditto for value and access, especially with six- and seven-figure pricing of therapeutics becoming more commonplace. 

Among Narayanan’s other areas of focus, the pandemic has shown that traditional modes of engagement between clients and physicians are changing. “Sixty percent of U.S. physicians are no-see,” he observed. “There will be a need for a completely different way of engaging them.”

Asked whether Real Chemistry will remain on the hunt for new capabilities to add to its portfolio, the new CEO seemed more intent on tapping his existing assets. “We can still unleash a significant amount of growth, so we’re not lacking for capability,” he noted.