Comms from the ground up

David Hunt’s career has taken him from painting Havas Lynx Group’s offices to running the agency, and now to LA to head up the West Coast for Havas Health & You. He tells Paul Tunnah how agencies can navigate growth challenges and help pharma connect with patients

With pharma comms changing so rapidly it’s rare to find someone who has stayed in the same place for more than 15 years, let alone someone who started at a company for work experience and rose to become CEO. But that’s exactly the path David Hunt has taken at Havas Lynx Group.

It might be a surprise to some, then, that after spending his entire career at the same agency, Hunt has transitioned, within the network, to take up the role of CEO West at Havas Health & You, moving from the UK to California in the process.

Hunt says he “literally can’t wait” to start the role.

“The agency in San Francisco is already very special, and is leading the way in search and social, which will be the foundational components of the most contemporary integrated campaigns in our industry.

“The combination of search, social, media and data represent the greatest opportunity for pharma since the first adopters embraced digital in the early 2000s with CLM and CRM.”

The move marks a big change for Hunt, whose previous life at Havas Lynx Group began when he was just 18, joining what was then called Creative Lynx for a week’s work experience.

“At that stage I was really considering the direction my career was going to take and I fell in love with Creative Lynx. I loved the vibe, the creativity and the ideas that were being bandied around. And at that point I thought, ‘My ambition is to run this agency’. Now, I never expected that to happen by the time I was 33 – I thought it was more realistic for it to happen when I was 53.”

The big move to the US, then, makes more sense when Hunt says that in Havas Health & You he has found an even longer-term home, describing how the company culture harkens back to those first experiences at Creative Lynx.

A world-famous alarm clock

After finishing his work experience at Creative Lynx, Hunt continued with his studies in product design, which included making a ‘world-famous’ alarm clock for his final year project.

“At that time, to retrieve information from the internet on a domestic product you would need a hard drive, motherboard, operating system, RAM, etc., and I managed to do it with just an MCU and a modem,” he explains. “The plan with my clock was that half an hour before it woke you up, it would check the local traffic information. If the traffic was heavy, it would wake you up early. If the traffic was light, it would let you sleep for a little longer.

“It was exhibited in the London Science Museum. It was reported all around the globe. I was one of the first people in the world to get a micro-controller and a modem to retrieve information from the internet. It is amazing what you can do with 30 pages of machine code.”

Hunt says that this background in product design means he fully appreciates the critical importance of user experience, product development and branding, preparing him well for working with start-ups in the US.

“What excites me about the base in California is the access to Silicon Bay and Silicon Beach, the life sciences hub in San Diego and the pharmaceutical companies across the region. Those companies are creating some of the most amazing healthcare solutions and technologies in the world right now.

“Last year we launched Havas Union, the idea being to take 20 years of pharma insight and help support start-ups whilst also taking the energy and the ideas of start-ups and trying to bring them to big pharma. We felt we could be a catalyst in the middle, speaking both languages. After an amazing launch, this move is the next step in that journey.”

Growing pains

The success of his alarm clock did not deviate Hunt from the passion he had for working for Creative Lynx, and after graduating he went back to join the company.

“The first thing I had to do when I joined was paint the office. For me that was a really important lesson because, there I was, a kid who’s just graduated with a first, just invented an alarm clock, who one day wants to run the agency. I arrive all smart on my first day, and then I’m given some overalls and a paintbrush and literally have to paint the entire office for the first two weeks. My only break was to go and get the office sandwiches.

“It was an incredibly important experience, as I was helped by one of the partners at the time. This demonstrated that it didn’t matter how senior you were in this business, everyone rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in. That’s something that’s really stuck with me for the last 20 years and has shaped today’s culture at Havas Lynx Group.”

As it happened, it didn’t take Hunt till he was 53 to start leading the company – that came in 2013 after Havas bought Creative Lynx.

He cites two things that have really influenced his beliefs as an agency leader since then.

“The first was a book by David Jones called Who Cares Wins. It’s not necessarily related to healthcare, but it says that the future of advertisement, the future of communications, is about making money and doing good, and creating campaigns that do both. That really resonated with me, and I believe it’s the perfect approach for pharma.

“On the back of that, in 2013 we published a white paper, Good Pharma, which was two things: it was a response to Ben Goldacre’s #BadPharma but it was also taking what David Jones had written and applying it to the healthcare setting. From that we came up with our mission, which centres around ‘helpful change’. The concept was really simple – it’s about how we can use communications to improve the lives of patients, therefore driving the commercial success of our clients and taking pride in the work that we do and the positive impact we have on society.”

The second big influence was a talk he saw at Cannes in 2013 by R. John Fidelino.

“The talk was about ‘Making pharma cool’. I thought it sounded ridiculous. I knew nothing at all. I was all wrapped up in ‘good pharma’ and having a significant impact on peoples’ lives. I thought being cool was the domain of fashion, automotive and travel advertisers.

“Within about two minutes I was completely hooked; he was absolutely inspirational and could not have been more correct, and me more wrong. The point he made was that if pharma climbed down from its ivory tower and was a bit more empathetic, a bit more approachable, a bit cooler, it could build much stronger relationships with patients and their communities and, as such, would be better placed to influence behaviours.

“So, I was left with two thoughts. The first; that the effective use of creativity will help to improve patient lives. The second; that creativity has to be fresh, relevant and aligned to the real needs of the community. It has been these two thoughts that have driven the growth of Havas Lynx Group from 100 to 400 people, five years later.”

But that growth wasn’t without its challenges. Hunt says that when he became CEO five years ago the agency was “no fun”.

“The agency I had fallen in love with when I joined, where people were working together with great camaraderie, had slowly disappeared.

“It was partly because we’d grown so fast into 100 people. I often get asked, what’s the hardest growth point? Is it when you go from 25 to 50, 50 to 100, 100 to 400? For us it was 100 people. All our ways of working, all our operations, everything that had been foundational to making us great was now strangling the business. We were still doing okay work. I’m not saying it was poor. But it wasn’t to the standards which Creative Lynx had become known for.

“The reason: we were spending all of our time haggling over resource, instead of being focused on patients, their needs, and the market. We had no continuity on accounts. A client could do four meetings with us and have four different teams.”

The idea for change came from a pub conversation with his business partner Steve Nicholas.

“We were saying how we had really enjoyed it when we were an agency of 25 people, so why don’t we just divide ourselves? Divide 100 people into autonomous micro-agencies of around 25 people.

“We both agreed almost immediately it was a great idea. Then over the next eight weeks we planned it in the most minute detail you could imagine. Then we completely ripped the agency up and rebuilt it in a single day. On that morning everyone came into work and we addressed them, explaining that we were going to divide ourselves up into four different business units. Typically, with two or three account teams, a couple of medical writers, two or three planners, four or five creatives, four or five digital experts. Every team would have the same. And, as you can imagine, I asked them, very politely, for their support, as there was no ‘undo’ button.”

Havas Lynx Group has stuck to this structure since then, and as the company has grown they have increased the number of teams rather than increasing individual team sizes – they call it PRIDE.

Having learnt a huge amount during his lengthy stay at Havas Lynx Group, Hunt says the most important piece of advice he would give to somebody running an agency is to love what you do.

“I am totally passionate about using creativity to help patients, simple,” he says.

So, while at first it might seem that he is making a big change with his new role, it looks like Hunt won’t be changing his view on what makes an agency tick, whether it’s an agency in the UK or America.

About the author

Paul Tunnah

Dr Paul Tunnah founded pharmaphorum in 2009, which is a content and communications company offering industry leading publications (www.pharmaphorum.com) and a strategic consultancy (www.pharmaphorumconnect.com). He is a recognised author, speaker and industry advisor on content marketing, communications and digital innovation, having worked with many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and the broader ecosystem of healthcare organisations.

Connect with Dr Tunnah on Linkedin or email paul.tunnah@pharmaphorum.com.

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