Over the past 10 years, Biolumina has successfully expanded into a large-size agency while maintaining the feel of a small one. What’s the secret to this success? A strong foundation of culture, values and ways of working to ensure the DNA of the agency is replicated consistently as it grows.

During a recent MM+M podcast, digital editor Jack O’Brien sat down with the Biolumina leadership team — Kirsten Kantak, president and CEO; Diane Iler-Smith, chief creative officer; and Brenda Aske, chief strategy officer — to discuss what sets the agency apart, its steadfast commitment to curiosity-driven culture and its vision for the future of oncology and beyond.

Cultivating a culture of curiosity

In 2015, Biolumina relaunched the agency to not only serve the agency’s business objectives but also nurture its employees by anchoring its foundation in curiosity. Coupled with empathy and innovation, curiosity forms the bedrock of Biolumina’s creative process, driving not just campaigns but operational excellence and relationships.

“The key to keeping up with everything that’s going on in the environment — whether it’s technology, whether it’s data, whether it’s science, whether it’s marketing — is to be endlessly and relentlessly curious about everything in the world,” Aske said.

Central to Biolumina’s success is the philosophy of “happy conflict” and kindness. This culture fosters positive intellectual debate, driving progress and strengthening relationships. “It’s not just giving you permission to challenge somebody but it’s also telling the recipient of the challenge to listen with an open mind, listen with a brave heart and build something together,” Kantak explained.

Also integral to the culture’s success is the importance of kindness — “putting someone else’s or the team’s best interest ahead of your own as an individual,” she added. Happy conflict combined with kindness creates an environment where every voice is heard, fostering collaboration and growth.

Investing in talent and continuous learning

Recognizing the correlation between meaningful work and employee retention, Biolumina prioritizes purpose. Many new employees are drawn to the agency’s oncology focus and the opportunity to be “creative with purpose.”

“Research shows that when employees feel their work serves a meaningful purpose, they are over two-and-a-half times more likely to stay with a company,” Iler-Smith explained. “When employees are surrounded by a team with a shared purpose, it makes their work more meaningful and fulfilling. It creates this community of solidarity around a cause.”

To nurture talent, the agency provides comprehensive training and onboarding, ensuring every member feels empowered with a strong foundation from day one. Continuous learning is ingrained in the agency’s DNA, driving innovation and adaptability.

“The way we live – to be helpful and to be kind – is to teach and learn, bring everyone in and welcome them, and help people to achieve better and faster,” Aske said. “We believe that we’re never done learning and the minute you believe you are, you become obsolete.”

At Biolumina, everyone is accountable to one other. The company created a three-squad structure across teams that “gives people who are new to the industry or to the agency access to senior people within the organization, so that they have the opportunity to learn from them,” Kantak said.

A key component of the agency’s philosophy is that feedback is “fuel” and essential to doing great work. “That [360-degree] feedback helps to create better relationships — and better relationships create better teams and better work and a virtuous circle of growth,” she said.

Expanding horizons

In a rapidly evolving landscape, staying relevant requires relentless curiosity and a willingness to embrace change. It’s important to stay alert to emerging trends, whether in technology, data or science.

“You always have to be in a learning mindset, be flexible and be open to new ideas and also be unafraid to take risks,” Aske said. “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying; if you’re not trying, then you’re not pushing the boundaries; and if you’re not pushing the boundaries, you’re not keeping up and you’re going to be left behind.”

By staying curious and unafraid to take risks, Biolumina remains at the forefront of innovation, prepared to tackle new challenges and opportunities. Looking ahead, the leaders envision a future where the agency’s expertise in oncology serves as a springboard for tackling a broader range of life-affecting diseases.

“The knowledge that you have propels you so much faster in understanding other markets,” Aske explained. With a deep understanding of genetic mutations and molecular drivers of disease, the agency is poised “to expand into oncology-adjacent spaces, where our core skill set — this deep understanding of the science and emotional empathy for the patient — intersects.”

Biolumina’s journey is a testament to the transformative power of curiosity, empathy and innovation. By fostering a culture of continuous learning, embracing happy conflict and prioritizing kindness, the agency is not only shaping the future of oncology but also paving the way for impactful contributions in healthcare and beyond.

Click to see Biolumina’s Agency 100 2024 Profile.

Click here to return to the MM+M Agency 100.

Note: The MM+M Podcast uses speech-recognition software to generate transcripts, which may contain errors. Please use the transcript as a tool but check the corresponding audio before quoting the podcast.

[00:01]
Agency 100 PlayBook Podcast research shows that when employees feel their work serves the meaningful purpose, they are over two and a half times more likely to stay with a company the better. We are the better the team is the better the work is the better the work is the better we are so it’s it’s a nice virtuous circle from which we can all

[00:20]
Continue to grow the key to keeping up with everything that’s going on in the environment. Whether it’s technology whether it’s data, whether it’s science whether it’s marketing science everything is to be endlessly and relentlessly curious– about everything in the world.

[00:36]
That play results in a Biolumina first down.

[00:41]
Hello, this is Jack O’Brien digital editor at MM+M.

[00:44]
In this episode, we’re focusing on Biolumina and we’re joined by three very special guests. Hi, I’m Diane Iler-Smith I’m the chief creative officer at Biolumina, I’m Brenda Aske the chief strategy officer at Biolumina, and I’m Kirsten Kantak, president and CEO at Biolumina.

[00:59]
I appreciate you all coming on the Agency 100 podcast. We got to talk a couple weeks ago for your profile in the forthcoming.

[01:05]
Agency 100 listing had a great conversation about everything that’s going on especially in the oncology space.

[01:11]
And the entire Story by aluminum but I really wanted to start.

[01:14]
Their kind of taking us back a little bit before we get to the present and forward-looking.

[01:18]
Kirsten if you can talk to me a little bit about bioluminescence history, I think that’d be really interesting for our audience.

[01:25]
Yeah, so I like to think of the Beginning as Biolumina of Biolumina in 2015 when?

[01:29]
Brenda and I joined the agency and Diane joined a couple of years later and we kind of really relaunched the agency in 2015.

[01:36]
As we relaunch the agency we knew we needed to find a foundation for the agency.

[01:40]
That not only served the Business of what we do, but really serve as the the employees equally alright because we know that people.

[01:47]
Join an agency not for the good of the agency book they tried to find a place where they can really build their careers.

[01:53]
so after a lot of research and discussion and

[01:55]
probably some happy hours and conversations.

[01:58]
We ended up really focusing in on this Foundation of curiosity.

[02:02]
And we chose it for those reasons because it serves both of those things.

[02:05]
We know that from psychological research. There is a strong correlation between people that are curious they are.

[02:11]
More intelligent more successful and happier.

[02:14]
So we want to attract people that are curious and we want to really encourage that curiosity within their kind of every day.

[02:20]
We also know that empathy and Innovation along with curiosity is the key to Great creativity.

[02:25]
And when we talk about creativity, it’s not just a beautiful campaigns that we create but it’s operationally it’s relationships. It’s science.

[02:33]
It kind of runs the gamut of everything that we do.

[02:35]
And the other reason we like to curiosity is that it not only gives you permission, but it mandates the U.S questions questions we get better questions.

[02:43]
And there’s a virtuous circle of growth for us as individuals and also us as an organisation.

[02:47]
And this Foundation of curiosity has really informed literally everything we do from our values to our processes.

[02:54]
And one of the things that I think I’m probably most proud of is this idea of happy conflict.

[02:59]
That we’ve created it’s a philosophy. It’s a tool. It’s become a verb.

[03:03]
And it’s the idea that positive intellectual debate drives progress and it makes.

[03:07]
The work better it makes relationships better and it basically makes kind of everything better.

[03:12]
And I think this is has been key to our success over the last several years. It’s part of our mandatory training for all of our.

[03:18]
Employees and we retrain people on it.

[03:21]
We actually train clients on it and encourage clients to really embrace it.

[03:24]
and it’s

[03:25]
it’s intended to give people permission to speak up and it might encourage people that might be hesitant to speak up to actually do so it says I’m going to challenge your thinking.

[03:34]
but I’m going to do it with positive Intent

[03:36]
Um like I said it’s become a verb people say I’m going to happy conflict you please happy conflict me.

[03:41]
and

[03:42]
one of the nice things is that it’s kind of two ways. It’s not just giving you permission.

[03:46]
to challenge somebody but it’s also telling that recipient of the Challenge too like

[03:51]
really listen and listen with an open mind listen with a Braveheart

[03:55]
and you know build something together, so that’s become really ingrained in our culture and how we function with each other on a daily basis.

[04:02]
At the other thing that is.

[04:04]
Ingrained into our culture and actually into.

[04:06]
our values as kindness

[04:08]
and I think that I think this is a trait that’s often under appreciated in business.

[04:14]
And to be clear kindness is not niceness and there’s a really important difference in my mind.

[04:19]
Niceness is a little bit more self-serving.

[04:21]
And kindness is more about putting someone else’s or the teams best interests ahead of your own as an individual.

[04:27]
Our head of agency engagement like to give this explanation of it.

[04:31]
Being nice is not.

[04:32]
Telling someone they have spent it in their teeth.

[04:34]
As it might be a little awkward for you to actually do it.

[04:37]
But being kind is pulling them aside and telling them.

[04:40]
so

[04:41]
you know this applies to personal things like spinach in your teeth, but it also applies to how we talk about the work.

[04:45]
How we talk about performance?

[04:47]
Being kind at the end of the day is being willing to speak up for what’s right and in the end. I think that benefits us all.

[04:52]
So to me.

[04:53]
By alumin is all about curiosity happy conflict and kindness.

[04:58]
I appreciate that background from the inception of the agency to where it is now in terms of the culture that you’ve been– able to.

[05:04]
Foster Diana I want to bring you into the conversation here because when I started doing these agency 100 hundreds when I joined mmm a couple of years ago.

[05:12]
The big topic of conversation was the great resignation and how it was going to affect the broader labour market and what medical marketing agencies, we’re going to do in terms of Talent acquisition.

[05:21]
And Talent retainment obviously that has kind of Fallen by the wayside. I would say in terms of a priority among the people that we spoke in width, but it’s still something that is top of mind for.

[05:31]
We got to be able to keep the people in-house in the ones that we bring in house.

[05:34]
They have to know what we’re all about when it comes to biolumina. How do you recruit and retain Talent

[05:40]
Well, as you know cancer impacts so many of us.

[05:44]
Nearly everyone knows or has lost someone dear to them from this disease and that includes people in our industry.

[05:52]
We’ve found so many creatives who are attracted to buy alumina because of our oncology Focus

[05:59]
They find great purpose and producing work to help educate the oncology community on the latest therapeutic innovations.

[06:07]
And our mantra at the agency creative with purpose means that we strive to develop creative. That is as inspiring as the innovative therapies that we work on.

[06:18]
And we completely reject the Old stereotype.

[06:21]
That oncology creative is boring and all about the data.

[06:25]
We need big bold ideas that are emotionally resonant and rationally grounded.

[06:31]
And everything is intentional about The Craft of our work from font choice to word choice.

[06:38]
And then regarding retention you know research shows that when employees feel their work serves a meaningful purpose. They are over two and a half times more likely to stay with a company.

[06:50]
And when employees are surrounded by a team with a shared purpose.

[06:54]
it makes their work more meaningful and fulfilling it creates this community a solidarity around a Cause

[07:01]
and we feel that on our creative department in the entire agency and we believe that that’s contributed to our high retention rate.

[07:08]
And Brenda I want to bring you into the conversation here because we’ve alluded to it a couple times in this conversation thus far but this idea of training your employees and even an extending to your clients.

[07:18]
In terms of being on the same page here, can you talk this a little bit about that because I’m sure there are people are audience who are like. I want to know more about that and that apply to our own agency. What does that all about?

[07:27]
Sure teaching and learning are such a huge part of our culture.

[07:31]
And a big part of everybody’s job.

[07:33]
It’s encoded into our values.

[07:36]
It’s

[07:36]
just the Way We Live to be helpful to be kind as Kirsten says to

[07:41]
Is to teach and learn and bring everyone in and welcome?

[07:45]
them and and help people to

[07:48]
achieve more better and faster

[07:51]
so

[07:52]
what we have what we’ve implemented is a two-week training period for every single by luminary.

[07:57]
So you have the time to really understand the frameworks the people and the brands that you’re on.

[08:02]
Before your expected to put your expertise to work. It’s like a little Oasis of onboarding that that gives people the freedom to learn and

[08:09]
connect and socialise and ingrain themselves in the culture before they’re

[08:13]
expected to

[08:14]
get to routing the jobs and get to immerse themselves into the actual data.

[08:19]
And we’ve also recently hired someone who’s dedicated to refining and optimising all of our training.

[08:24]
To ensure that it’s effective and efficient and updated as we have all.

[08:28]
we really I’ll talk about this perhaps a little bit later, but

[08:31]
We believe that we’re never really done learning and the minute you believe you know everything is the minute that you become obsolete.

[08:37]
So we really feel it’s just so important to take the time to teach and learn every single day.

[08:42]
You hear his name. Is there anything that you want to add on to that point is it relates to training?

[08:46]
I think the only thing that I would add on is like you know training is only.

[08:50]
I think part of getting people on board and

[08:54]
ingrained as Brenda says into the the business.

[08:57]
I like to think of this as

[08:59]
what we’ve talked about this Diana and I have recently talked about this is it’s all about.

[09:03]
The idea that it takes a village right. It’s not just about the manager whose responsible for.

[09:09]
helping to teach someone the ways of their

[09:12]
their role, but it’s really everyone it’s kind of we want to make sure that we embrace everybody.

[09:17]
because at the end of the day the more successful one team member is

[09:21]
the more successful the team is

[09:23]
and the more successful.

[09:24]
Kind of the the businesses that the agency is and then we are as individuals again. It’s one of those.

[09:29]
Kind of virtuous circles the more the better we are the better the team is the better the work is the better the work is the better we are so it’s it’s a nice virtuous circle from.

[09:37]
From which we can all continue to grow.

[09:40]
In you talk about growth there. I’m really curious from your perspective whenever I talk to agencies that are scaling up or adding on so many new employees and new members. There’s always this conversation of you know being able to still keep the fundamentals in place being able to keep the work and the quality and all that consistency from your perspective because I know you have grown in terms of your

[09:59]
Head count, how do you focus on being able to keep that quality in the same stuff that you would expect to see it say a smaller agency of the stable give you that dedicated work. How are you able to keep those?

[10:08]
protocols in place

[10:09]
one of the things is just

[10:11]
to think of ourselves as a big agency.

[10:13]
We think of ourselves as we still think of ourselves as you know 60 people.

[10:16]
In some ways and one of the things that we do to continue to facilitate or to encourage that feeling of the agency.

[10:23]
Is that we structured ourselves into into three squads?

[10:26]
So that we feel each of the squads feel really closely connected to their immediate teams.

[10:31]
But at the same time we have this connective tissue that that reaches all the way across the agency.

[10:37]
Which is firmly rooted in our values and firmly rooted in our frameworks and processes.

[10:41]
And things like as Diane talked about creative with purpose those are the kinds of things that that tie us together.

[10:47]
This squad structure really allows for the growth of all of our luminaries that it as it doesn’t kind of create a ceiling for people.

[10:53]
But it also on the opposite side of it it gives.

[10:56]
People that maybe are new to the industry or new to the agency access to senior people.

[11:01]
Within the organisation so that you have the opportunity to learn from them and to experience what it’s like and to.

[11:07]
to watch people and to learn about you know how people behave and

[11:10]
You know follow the things that you think are working really well and don’t do the things that you think aren’t working well.

[11:17]
and I

[11:17]
the other part of this is not just this structure of the agency, but really thinking about how.

[11:21]
How we give feedback we you know at oh we have this philosophy that feedback is fuel.

[11:26]
And we really embrace that because we think that that we think that feedback whether it’s on.

[11:30]
the individual work or on performance is is really

[11:34]
essential to do doing great work.

[11:37]
And we’re focused on this idea.

[11:39]
And it’s not our idea. It’s something that we’ve embraced from Kim Scott

[11:42]
it’s radical candor.

[11:44]
She talks about the importance of challenging directly.

[11:47]
And caring personally.

[11:48]
And what she means by that is making sure that we’re you know you’re giving feedback frequently.

[11:53]
And even better if you can actually do it in the moment.

[11:55]
Being really candid with how you give the feedback.

[11:58]
You know this idea of you know it’s back to kindness. It’s telling people they have spinach in their teeth.

[12:02]
You know don’t sugar coat it but at the same time don’t be a jerk.

[12:06]
We know we don’t want people to be jerks. We want people to be kind.

[12:09]
And we need to make sure that the feedback goes in kind of all directions. It’s not just from a manager to a director report.

[12:15]
But it’s from a director port to a manager and and and you know horizontally as well.

[12:20]
because that feedback helps to

[12:22]
Create better relationships and better relationships create better teams and better work and you know another virtuous circle of growth there.

[12:29]
So we we’re again. We we have training on this not surprising. We’re very very conscious of making sure that we’re we’re we make it clear.

[12:36]
As to help people can live the values and embrace things like feedback as fuel.

[12:40]
so we

[12:43]
we have training around.

[12:44]
framework feedback structure so like fact in opinion action impact

[12:50]
and it the way that it kind of comes into into play is that you know for example?

[12:56]
You know one of the things we see is that people don’t really understand.

[12:59]
Oftentimes the impact on a team or based or an individual on one of their actions.

[13:05]
So we ask people to say things like that you know in the spirit.

[13:08]
Of radical candor, I’m going to give you feedback on.

[13:11]
But like so it kind of again gives you permission it says you’re doing it with.

[13:15]
positive intent and because you

[13:17]
because I care personally I’m going to challenge you directly right.

[13:21]
And it’s this can be like little things and it can be big things and you know to the point of sometimes people don’t understand the impact of what they’re doing.

[13:28]
you know for example some we’ve had examples of people where like person a

[13:32]
consistently either doesn’t show up to a meeting.

[13:34]
Or cancels meeting right meetings regularly and personally is like what’s the big deal? They get time back in their day.

[13:39]
But for person b.

[13:41]
they feel like

[13:42]
they’re not respected and they feel like their time doesn’t doesn’t matter.

[13:46]
so being able to say

[13:47]
you know

[13:48]
When you cancel meetings when you don’t show up, it makes me feel like I’m not important.

[13:53]
And it just it opens up a conversation.

[13:56]
And it allows us to embrace our Curiosity and talk about what’s working and what’s not working.

[14:01]
Clarify situations and again. Hopefully get back to that place where you have in a good open honest.

[14:07]
Kind conversation.

[14:08]
back to the idea of stronger relationships stronger teams

[14:11]
stronger works stronger agency

[14:13]
I believe that if we are able to continue to do that. We’ll continue to do great work and continue to succeed.

[14:18]
But it’s you know it’s hard work. It’s hard to give feedback. That’s why we create these.

[14:22]
these frameworks and structures

[14:23]
absolutely makes everyone more receptive and therefore there’s that growth that you’re looking for in terms of the people that you have around you attribute to culture at all has those downstream effects that everyone’s looking for in there.

[14:33]
Organisation and and to that end. I kind of want to pivot the conversation a bit and bring brand it back in here when you’re looking at just the changing landscape.

[14:41]
that you operate in you know if we’d have this conversation five years ago at this point covid would have never been top of mind and now we’re

[14:47]
Far enough removed from the emergency phase of the pandemic where it’s like okay. Covid is not the same.

[14:51]
Priority that it was a couple years ago, but now we have.

[14:54]
Generative AI we have glp-1 drugs we have.

[14:58]
You know everything that’s going on the FDA there’s there’s so many other things that are there are top of mind for the industry that called to mind this what we have to act on this we have to know how it’s going to impact our business.

[15:07]
For you as a leader.

[15:09]
How do you balance all that how is it something where it’s like okay? There’s the new shiny object but we were just addressing the Old shiny object like how do you how do you maneuver all?

[15:18]
Of that the key to keeping it up with everything that’s going on in the environment, whether it’s technology whether it’s data, whether it’s science whether it’s marketing science everything.

[15:27]
Is to be endlessly and relentlessly curious about everything in the world?

[15:32]
You always have to be in a learning mindset and be flexible and open to new ideas.

[15:37]
And also you have to be unafraid to take risks to.

[15:41]
Try out a new methodology.

[15:43]
dive deeper into those glp ones

[15:45]
try out your tools with AI and see what happens.

[15:48]
Just if things work great adapted Bring It Bring it into your world and it’ll it’ll push you.

[15:55]
Improve your productivity a little bit more.

[15:57]
But if it doesn’t work then you can reject it and move on.

[16:00]
But all of this requires this balance of humility to be.

[16:04]
Constantly in alerting mindset we Are Never the experts on anything.

[16:08]
We are always the world is changing around us so we always have to.

[16:12]
Be alert and Orient ourselves to that and adapt and integrate.

[16:16]
What are the people who are very inspired by Dr Susan Desmond Helman

[16:20]
she was a genetic years ago in the midst of all of their oncology success.

[16:25]
They had so many Blockbusters on the market.

[16:28]
But she was celebrating.

[16:29]
Failed trials she said you learned so much from failed trials.

[16:34]
And that’s something we take to heart because if you’re not failing you’re not trying if you’re not trying then you’re not pushing the boundaries.

[16:40]
And if you’re not pushing the boundaries.

[16:42]
You’re not keeping up and you’re going to be left behind so that’s how our curiosity which is the Foundation of the agency is Kirsten talked about.

[16:49]
Is is Geeta us being current?

[16:51]
It was secondarily the things you’re mentioning.

[16:54]
Interestingly AI started so so long ago the seeds that that was we’re years ago and I remember talking about a glp ones.

[17:02]
back in you know the

[17:03]
2016 2017 we were doing research on this.

[17:07]
So every all the seeds of the future and innovation.

[17:11]
our planted early and you just have to be alert and aware and

[17:14]
once again curious to recognise those and

[17:16]
track them and that’s how you you just stay relevant in Society

[17:21]
and I’m curious about that you talked about kind of looking at the the seeds that are now going to turn into trees later on and that kind of leads me into my last question here which is when you look at the future of biolumina.

[17:31]
What does that look like from your perspective? You know if we were to have this conversation in two five years down the line.

[17:38]
Was the Agency look like?

[17:40]
He’ll play Still by illum.

[17:43]
the well the core of our business will always be oncology we absolutely love the science you heard that from Diane

[17:51]
We think our clients are fantastic. We love working with them. We love working with a whole community because it brings.

[17:57]
So much meaning and so much purpose into the lives and everything that we do.

[18:01]
however

[18:02]
our experience and oncology isn’t limiting.

[18:04]
It’s we see it really is a foundation. That’s a springboard for.

[18:08]
Any life affecting disease with emerging novel treatments?

[18:12]
we are joking the other day that it’s working in cancers almost like

[18:15]
working in a skunk Works

[18:17]
for any area of impactful medicine

[18:20]
because the knowledge that you have really propels you so much faster.

[18:24]
in in understanding other markets

[18:27]
for example our understanding of genetic mutations and molecular drivers of disease.

[18:32]
And are empathy for the patient experience.

[18:35]
translates directly into rare disease

[18:38]
on the other hand since immunology is the Foundation of so many diseases from psoriasis to

[18:43]
cardiovascular disease to neurologic conditions

[18:46]
Are in-depth understanding?

[18:48]
Of the molecular basis the immunology behind cancer treatments is a great Foundation there.

[18:54]
In fact there’s a there’s a really promising Alzheimer’s agent that’s in development that has been described as key truth of the brain.

[19:00]
So they’re just so many interconnections.

[19:03]
and we see the opportunity to expand and to what we think of as

[19:06]
oncology adjacent spaces

[19:09]
Where our core skill set of this deep understanding of the science?

[19:12]
And emotional empathy for the patient.

[19:14]
intersects

[19:15]
there’s just so much excitement and the oncology space and it’s it’s great to be able to have a conversation with you all in terms of what you’re doing to be able to best position your clients to make the most opportunity obviously.

[19:28]
push patient outcomes in the right direction so I appreciate you being on the show here and and

[19:33]
you know this is our second conversation here so I’ve gone to know quite a bit about your business and just appreciate you on the hc100 list and wish you all the best going forward. Thank you Jack thank you ya thank you. Thank you so much.