MM&M Top 100 Agencies: Digitas Health LifeBrands

The Digitas Health LifeBrands reputation is well established. Known for leading the charge on innovation and seeking solutions to healthcare problems old and new, the Publicis-owned agency has often shown that it is not afraid to fail in its pursuit of “better.” It’s an approach that seems to be paying off.

“Things are going extremely well,” says Graham Mills, global chief creative  officer for Digitas Health LifeBrands, Publicis LifeBrands & Heartbeat Ideas. “I feel that we are hitting our stride right now. We have a purpose, which is about understanding what’s possible in health and bringing that to our clients. It’s having a transformational effect on the agency in terms of the people coming here, the clients we’re attracting, and the way that the business is growing.”

While DHLB does not reveal financial specifics, EVP and general manager Marion Chaplick says the company enjoyed its third consecutive year of double-digit growth in 2015. “It made us pause and say, ‘Wow, we’re on a trajectory. How do we make the most of it and how do we grow further and faster?’”

Headcount rose from 465 to 525 to service that growth, much of which was organic and came from clients that have worked with DHLB for more than five years, such as AbbVie, Shire, and Gilead. “They’ve turned out to be some of our most courageous clients,” Chaplick continues. “They are ready for what’s next and for what is possible.”

She adds that there has been a conscious effort to refrain from feeding such clients the same types of services and capabilities that used to be available. “That’s something in our DNA,” Chaplick advises. “We are continuously adding, reinventing, and repackaging.”

DHLB execs are excited by a palpable increase in demand for the “more interesting, more complex, multichannel, and cross-audience” work that it has been encouraging clients to pursue. “It happens when you have creative clients who are willing to do things that they haven’t necessarily done before,” says Chaplick. “The traditional marketing playbook is not contemporary enough for how our customers are relating to brands today.”

The agency is also witnessing greater diversity in the type of clients with which it partners. More often than in the past, the opportunity to work with non-pharma entities has allowed Digitas to build and test new solutions that might benefit more conventional clients farther down the road.

A prime example is TedMed, which last year tapped Digitas to be its social media AOR. The agency built for it a new capability called “connected health,” which enabled it to service a highly complex, large-scale social media program across multiple platforms.

“That was something that we would not have been able to stretch, learn, and build against our regular clients,” says Craig Douglass, executive creative director. “But having built that capability and those skills, we’re now bringing them back to our clients at a time when they’re ready for them.”

Another good example of the drive for more effective solutions is the AZhelps platform that Digitas developed with AstraZeneca. AZhelps is an app-based service that offers patients tracking and reminder tools, discounts via unified digital co-pay cards, medical information, and health and wellness content — effectively a digital one-stop-shop help-and-advice center. “AstraZeneca, at the enterprise level, is looking to transform the service proposition of its products,” Douglass says. “We introduced content partners and a user experience that’s common across platforms.”

For this type of client work, the agency decided to adopt the mantra “Healthcare is hard. Health is easy.” “It’s about rendering this complicated system of co-pays and reminders and the right kind of knowledge, then bringing that together in a contemporary platform in the same way that Uber transformed transportation,” he continues. “Ultimately, it’s part of the brand being successful and the patient being successful on therapy.”

Douglass pauses to again highlight the importance of willing, collaborative client partners. “Any of the great work, anything that stands up and wins awards, is always at that wonderful place where there’s a great alignment of purpose, where both client and agency play an active role in something that is better than either of them would do on their own,” he says.

DHLB entered the digital space earlier than most of its peers, and Mills believes that having that core digital root has allowed it to approach marketing in a different way. “It made us think differently about platforms, channels, and media, so we don’t feel bound to do the set playbook,” he explains.

To that end, he cites the example of some social media work DHLB is currently doing in the cystic fibrosis space. The pivotal insight, Mills says, is that when people interact with their condition, they interact with other patients. While that may not be unique to the CF space, in this case social media is actually a proven benefit — a positive clinical outcome — for patients.

“The social media is actually the medicine. That, to me, is really exciting,” Mills says. “It is transformational.”

It’s all part of the shift in healthcare marketing from selling products to helping patients. And that’s a philosophy upon which DHLB can build a strategy, Brand Fit. A deliberate double-entendre, it refers to the health of the brand and the way in which it fits into the lives of patients.

“It’s about creating big, generous ideas that really do embrace people and encourage better health,” Mills explains. “It’s not easy, particularly in such a heavily regulated environment, and our success has a lot to do with the attitude of our clients.”

Much of it also has to do with hiring the right talent, of course. Douglass points out that the agency has sought to bring in a variety of different skill sets, often from other geographies or other industries.

“Culturally, we really value that diversity of skills and thinking,” he says. “So the kind of people we look for are the kind of people who embrace some of that chaos. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Mills reports that Publicis Groupe’s much-publicized “Power of One” reorganization — which essentially gives every client access to its en­tire network of expertise and resources — appears to be working well so far. “It’s been a really authentic coming-together,” he says. “There is a real sense of collaboration and camaraderie across the group.”

As for the future, Mills says Digitas Health will continue to push for creative, innovative solutions, remaining true to its longtime motto of “helping, not selling.”

“We could do extremely well by just doing what everyone else does, but for us the really wonderful thing is when we do something transformative,” Mills adds. “We don’t wait for it to come to us — we chase it. It doesn’t always work out, but we always learn from it and figure out what to do next.”

This article originally appeared on MM&M