Euro RSCG Life: Healthcare AOY ’09

Euro RSCG Life considers what it learned from a pitch two years ago critical to its success in 2009. Worldwide managing partners Doug Burcin and Donna Murphy toiled for months during a pitch for Johnson & Johnson’s $110 million creative account. In the end, they delivered what they believed was the most perfect presentation. They lost.

“It was hell,” says Burcin.

“It was fun!” adds Murphy.

“We were distraught!” says Burcin.

“It drove the core team even further together,” Murphy counters.

This double act is their management style. It would be facile to suggest that after a combined 36 years at Euro they’re like a highly functional married couple, but given that they finish each other’s sentences, it’s hard not to think that.

“I like it. It gives me two people to go to,” says Nina Goodheart, vp of marketing for cardiac rhythm disease management at Medtronic, a client.

And it gets results. Under their leadership, the ERL network has grown to combined revenue of between $145 and $170 million, according to MedAdNews. In 2009 — in the teeth of a recession and a secular downturn in Big Pharma caused by a swathe of brand patent expirations — they grew their business by double digits.

Adweek’s Healthcare Agency of the Year hired 163 more people and still has some 50 openings across the network, and employ four full-time recruiters to fill them. It would be an impressive feat in a good year. In a downturn, it’s remarkable.

The J&J defeat — and the way Burcin and Murphy believe the experience made ERL stronger — explains in part why ERL, part of the Havas network, is so successful. Burcin and Murphy place a high premium on agency culture and cohesiveness. They want ERL to feel like family. The shop takes a “culture scan” every 18 months just to make sure everyone is on the same page and management isn’t losing the plot.

You can scoff at the fact that ERL employs a “culture consultant” to monitor employee happiness, but in 2009 the network won 62 out of 82 pitches. New clients included Cepahalon (for Fentora, a painkiller), Sanofi-Aventis (for its flagship diabetes drug, Lantus) and Genentech (for Pulmozyme, a cystic fibrosis treatment).

ERL’s biggest challenge is keeping its tired staff rewarded, Murphy says, “and keeping folks motivated and having the appropriate resources.” Free theater tickets and forced weekend breaks for overworked executives are part of it, they say, but you can’t get that level of work out of people unless they want to give it, so this culture thing evidently works. “We worked like dogs,” Burcin says. “Loyalty pulled us through a lot of last year.”

It’s also about innovation. ERL prides itself on being as technologically and financially entrepreneurial as possible. For instance, it has built its own virtual conference software, in which doctors choose an avatar to attend a medical meeting in cyberspace and see lectures, presentations and panel discussions with thousands of other participants. There’s even a trade show hall where booths are represented digitally exactly as they’d appear in real life. Participants navigate the environment as if it were a videogame — a first-person schmoozer, if you will.

ERL licenses the software to customers who then — almost always — hire the agency to supply it with content. ERL will also deliver a media plan to drive interest. The agency gets a performance bonus if participants perform certain actions. “Doug and I came up with this concept on a napkin,” Murphy remembers.

Ideas like that won Euro a place back on Novartis’ roster, a client that previously axed the shop in (yet another) agency consolidation. “We worked three years to get back into Novartis,” Burcin says. ERL is Novartis’ digital and social media agency.