syneos health gsw

L-R: Nick Capanear, Michael Austin, Sam Cannizzaro, Marc Lineveldt, Todd Henwood. Photo by Chris Farber

With 150 creatives based in six offices, GSW, a Syneos Health company, faced a challenge common to many agencies. How do you coordinate a disparate pool of talent and integrate it into a single, articulated, creative force?

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The agency’s solution was to establish a formal council, a kind of brain trust fronted by the company’s five creative leads. As Michael Austin, GSW managing director, New York City and Los Angeles, puts it, “This council represents a giant tier one badass agency. We see our work as a team sport.”

The council’s mandate is ambitious – to produce adventurous campaigns for clients while championing the passion projects of creatives across the company. “Part of the council’s job is to protect ideas, to nurture them. Those ideas that are larger than life and solve human problems need to see the light of day,” says Sam Cannizzaro, executive creative director in GSW’s Newtown, Pennsylvania, office.   

To learn more about the council’s goals and approach, MM&M attended its inaugural meeting at GSW’s New York office for an honest discussion about the agency-client relationship, the tension between data and emotional connection, industry trends, and creativity in the face of regulation.

Michael Austin, managing director, NYC and Los Angeles
Sam Cannizzaro, executive creative director, Newtown
Nick Capanear, executive creative director, NYC
Todd Henwood, executive creative director, Toronto and Montreal
Marc Lineveldt, executive creative director, Columbus, Ohio

The changing agency-client relationship

Henwood: Are we a vendor or are we a partner? You can tell right away by whether the client talks to us as a vendor or as a partner how the relationship’s going to go. We prefer to work as partners. Also, we’re seeing clients asking us to be more daring, to try different things, but to do more with less.

Austin: Our partnerships are more varied now. With the rise of biotech, some of our clients are smaller companies. We get a seat at the table with their C-suite, something that doesn’t happen typically with big pharma. It’s easier to get a big initiative through because we have that access.

How to leverage data

Lineveldt: There is much more data available and accessible. Still, the more striking and impactful work rises above the data. So, you have to sift through it, condense it, get insights out of it, and not hide behind it. It’s the fight to get beauty out of the numbers. Data is safe, rational, and efficient. But creativity sits on the opposite end of the scale. Creativity is risky, irrational, and chaotic. The five of us represent the chaos.

Cannizzaro: It’s unexpected, daring, coordinated chaos. I also think the shrinking of the marketing departments means where before clients had analysts who sifted through the data, they’re now looking for us to get insights into how the data helps explain human behavior. That in turn can help us be creative.

Concerns about regulation

Capanear: Over my career, I would say the advertising agencies have self-regulated too much. We shouldn’t hold ourselves back.

Austin: Sometimes HIPAA is used as an excuse to not do anything interesting. HIPAA exists for a reason, it’s there to protect people. Advertising is an exaggeration of the truth, but you’re not supposed to exaggerate the truth in pharma and that’s a good thing, because we’re talking about life and death. I don’t want to make a gross exaggeration about the truth that could harm somebody. In tennis, the lines are there for a reason and I think when you get good at playing the game, you enjoy hitting something just inside the line. But sometimes you need to hit the ball outside the line and clients can be scared of that. It’s our job internally to not be afraid of that.  

The new toolbox 

Capanear: Now the ad agency isn’t just doing ads, we’re doing PR, we’re the social media agency. We’re creating products.

Austin: It’s a fascinating time to be in healthcare marketing because of the intersection of tech and health. Everyone is tracking their health. Using that technology to execute an idea presents an exhilarating opportunity. User-generated content has become an expertise. So, every day you can open your box of crayons and think, ‘What do I have to color with today?’ 

Cannizzaro: I love how technology is allowing us to get to a one-to-one conversation with the patient. You can create multiple stories based on where the patient is on the journey of their disease. So, we’re solving a human problem, not trying to sell a pill.

GSW’s creative council plans to spearhead cross-company collaborations on multiple campaigns and create brave, award-winning work. “The biggest winners are our clients,” says Lineveldt, “because we’re stronger as a group.”