How a healthcare specialist officially became the most-creative agency on the planet
Area 23’s CCO, Tim Hawkey, tells us how ‘holy shit’ projects made the agency’s name with clients and propelled it to the top of this year’s World Creative Ranking.
Area 23 helped bring Woojer’s cystic fibrosis med tech solution to audiences last year / Area 23
Until recently, specialist healthcare agencies were cul de sacs. Despite bringing in plenty of revenues for parent companies and shareholders, the sector struggled to attract top creative talent, gain recognition outside its niche and generally prove its value beyond that of a holding company cash cow.
Those days are behind us. The pandemic saw a huge upswing in spending and ambition from pharmaceutical and private health marketers, with businesses such as McCann Health, VMLY&R Health and Havas Health & You having grown accordingly.
The appearance of Area 23 at the summit of The Drum’s World Creative Rankings this week – making it the most-acclaimed agency in the world, according to the industry’s collected awards juries – all but confirms that trend.
A full-service agency with around 850 staff, the IPG Health company’s rise has partly been masterminded by chief creative officer Tim Hawkey, who is also listed as among the top CCOs in the World Creative Rankings.
In his own words, Hawkey is “100% pharma born and raised” with “no good reason” to be making the work he’s making. He began his career as a cancer researcher back in the 90s before swerving into marketing, writing copy lines for pharmaceutical brands. “I spent a good 10 to 15 years before I did anything remotely creative.”
By the time he ended up at Area 23, 11 years ago (by way of Grey and Draft FCB), agency heads were beginning to question why health agencies shouldn’t be competing for top creative honors. In 2014, the first year of the health category at Cannes Lions, Hawkey’s then-boss Carter Murray dispatched his team to the Côte d’Azur with a surfeit of confidence. “We thought we were gonna win this thing and then we got our asses handed to us,” he recalls. “We didn’t win a thing and we went home with our tails between our legs.”
That chastening experience among industry peers drove Hawkey and his colleagues to create ‘What If’, an initiative that gives staff the time to work on what he calls “holy shit proactive projects” for clients. “Within a month, people came into the boardroom and said they were going to set up a ‘killer tan’ tanning booth in the middle of Times Square and instead of a tanning booth it’s going to be a coffin. Two months later, we had a stunt film and while we did not win a Lion for that, we did get a shortlist – our first accomplishment at Cannes. In the US, it made everyone turn and a look and say, ‘Wow, they’re doing something there – I didn’t know we were allowed to do that kind of stuff as a pharma agency’.”
Hawkey, who was recently made chief creative officer of McCann Health in addition to his duties at Area 23, says “peer pressure, self-pressure and self-loathing drove the agency to push it forward – out of sheer pride.”
Since those days, the agency – along with its category peers – has managed to prove the value of that type of communication to clients, giving it a wider license to produce punchy work, such as its kid-friendly approach to medtech brand Woojer (shown above). “When we showed ‘Free Killer Tan’ at a new business pitch, the client had a choice to say ‘I like the way this agency thinks,‘ or not. Over time, we began to self-select for clients that wanted their own ‘Killer Tan’.”
One recent campaign from Area 23 shows just how far the agency has come. The first, born from a response to the anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, saw the agency help the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) create a cross-industry commitment from national reporters to change the way they wrote and broadcast coverage of mass shootings in America.
“[Creative directors] Felipe Munhoz and Bruno Brasileiro looked at the relationship that journalism has to the way we talk about this and they realized there’s a kind of a coverage template: get in, get out, capture the facts and boom, there’s the story.” That rote approach, plus the fear that naming suspects might promote “copycat” behavior, led the agency to create a newspaper with a single article written in a way that described “every single mass shooting since Parkland.” When the agency sent the project on to Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief of the CJR, he used it as a campaigning tool to bring colleagues and rival news organizations together in a summit. Together, they penned a ‘Gun Violence Coverage Commitment’ and persuaded The Guardian, The New York Times and others to sign up.
“We thought we would make a splash and get out, but we ended up creating this live summit of 250 journalists led by Pope to engage in a discussion and create that document.”
Public health campaigns like this, alongside work for medical tech brands such as Woojer, have also aided Area 23’s recruitment efforts. “Awards get you résumés,” he says. “And awards get you retention. A-players want to come to the network and the agency that’s in the headlines and they want to stay at that agency because they want to be on the winning team. We get to attract people who consider themselves at the top of their game or who want to get to the top of their game.
“I don’t want to minimize the difficulties around recruiting and retaining employees over the last couple of years, but I think we’ve weathered it well.”
With pharmaceutical clients willing to continue investing in creative marketing, Hawkey’s optimistic about the agency’s future performance. “We have our pharma clients investing their budgets in breakthrough work, not just experimental budgets.”
Explore the best-performing campaigns, agencies and brands in this year’s World Creative Rankings.