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Sharon Callahan, this year’s Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Woman of the Year, has built a career defined by an entrepreneurial drive to advance medical communications-and a commitment to breaking down barriers in the workplace and beyond.
A Force for Change: What perhaps began as a “great accident,” Sharon Callahan has built a career in healthcare marketing that was seemingly destined-defined by an entrepreneurial drive to advance medical communications, and a commitment to breaking down barriers in the workplace and beyond
From an early age, healthcare was not a career option that Sharon Callahan wanted much to do with. She was exposed to enough of it in her personal life, she felt. While, professionally, her mother was a nurse and her father had a sales background in the pharma industry, her mother was also diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis
when Callahan was young-and was forced to give up her nursing career. Callahan watched as her mother could no longer function physically as she did before-and be the person she wanted to be-leaving the family to deal with the illness as well. Amid those dueling traumas, Callahan found herself with more responsibilities than a 13-year-old kid should have, helping her father take care of her mother and younger brother.
Yet, when Callahan later started her professional journey, she landed in medical publishing first-despite wanting to work in advertising (she graduated from Wheaton College in Norton, MA, with a BA in English). “It was almost like a great accident,” Callahan recalls of her first job, a position with SCP Communications.
But was it really? From the very beginning of working in healthcare marketing, Callahan found that she and the healthcare and medical communications field fit like two puzzle pieces. “Within days of being there, it just felt like breathing. It felt like something that I knew and that meant something to me,” says the Connecticut native, chosen as the 2019 Woman of the Year by the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA).
Callahan stayed at SCP for 14 years, working as a jack of all trades-on the editorial side of medical publishing, in sales, and in marketing. After the company opened a special project division (Med Ed), Callahan became the unit’s general manager. This put her at the forefront of the then-budding digital healthcare arena, and in 1999, Callahan joined Medsite.com to hone her skills further.
Medsite.com was like the Amazon.com for doctors, says Callahan. It was an online resource that provided everything from medical reference books to tongue depressors. When the internet bubble burst in 2001, Callahan decided to take the plunge and start her own business, founding The Summit Group.
She and her partner licensed a technology called Hyper CD. The technology consisted of a computer CD that connected a user to the internet but played video locally. CDs were made up of medical education programs, including series on oncology and Alzheimer’s disease, for example, where users could access live accredited key opinion leaders (KOLs) and experts. The CDs were distributed with medical journals covering specific therapeutic areas.
While the technology was a great idea at the time, the emergence of broadband in the early 2000s dented its appeal. “I think who I am personally is somebody who pushes through [challenges],” says Callahan. Despite a continued procession of small failures in trying to stay ahead of technology, Callahan never gave up. She had been a pioneer in creating digital business models that worked; and although they would become outdated amid the natural growth of innovation, she was determined to find ways to anticipate digital needs before they occur-and find sustainable solutions. Her philosophy then and now: “Every breakdown is an opportunity for a breakthrough.”
Callahan has faced challenges in her personal life as well. “I am gay. And during my career, even dating back 30 years, I’ve always been very open about it,” she says. “That’s presented some challenges at times.” Additionally, Callahan has two sons, raising them in a climate when that wasn’t very easy to do. She did manage to find a work-life balance, but the “life” part with her family was becoming increasingly more important, and in the late 2000s, Callahan came to a real turning point.
In 2008, five years after she sold her company to Grey Healthcare Group, where she then became chief digital strategist and president of interactive agency Summit Grey, Omnicom came calling. The organization, which today includes more than 4,500 healthcare communications specialists, hired Callahan to help agencies and communications companies within Omnicom’s network upgrade what they were doing digitally. She was selected to manage some large pharmaceutical and healthcare client relationships, which required extensive traveling internationally. Finding herself home only four or five days every other week, Callahan stopped and thought hard about her priorities.
“I realized something had to change, because I always had done the expected in my career and worked really hard,” she says. “But, at this point, I knew there was something really more important than my career-which was my children.”
Callahan asked her manager if she could work more locally, thinking he would come to an agreement a few months down the road. But, within days, he made Callahan CEO of LLNS (Lyons Lavey Nickel Swift, Inc.), an Omnicom healthcare advertising agency. It was struggling at the time, and the ensuing experience taught Callahan a lot of difficult business lessons. “Everything I thought I knew turned out to probably not be true or right, and I went through a lot of ups and downs with that agency,” she acknowledges.
Those same lessons, however, proved valuable when Omnicom, in 2016, decided to merge LLNS with Corbett, another one of its agencies, under the TBWA\WorldHealth brand, where Callahan was named CEO. A month earlier, she was named chief client officer of the newly formed Omnicom Health Group, which aligned the portfolio of healthcare communications agencies under a single management structure. She continues in those capacities today. “I think it might be the hardest and best work I’ve done in my entire career,” Callahan told Pharm Exec.
For example, she launched WILDTYPE, a TBWA\WorldHealth company and bespoke agency supporting one of the top immuno-oncology drugs in the world. The product, which Callahan chose not to name, treats various types of cancer with many different lines of therapy. The drug is being studied in clinical trials in combination with other cancer agents, including chemotherapy. “There hasn’t been this kind of complexity in our business before,” says Callahan.
The drug is consistently being launched in new indications, with potentially more than 30, she says, thus, “You really need a different kind of agency; it’s not just about creating advertising, it’s much more specialized.”
A less product-focused project Callahan is currently directing is around fostering agile working environments-collaborating with her leadership team on ways to manage growth without having to rent more space, move spaces often, or change things too much. NY-based TBWA\WorldHealth has 14 offices in eight countries, including seven in the US, which allows the company to recruit talent strategically, Callahan says. She believes talent and skills should always trump location factors when hiring. “Talent is very scarce right now,” contends Callahan. “We have not, in our industry, manufactured enough talent to deal with all of the very high-science, highly complex drugs.”
To that end, in her role at Omnicom, Callahan works with a fellowship program. She is also involved in advancing the concept of staff “returnships,” where TBWA\WorldHealth has instituted a formal program to better enable returning employees to pick up right where they left off.
Drawing from more than three decades in healthcare marketing, serving in management roles of increasing responsibility and scope, Callahan sums up her leadership philosophy in two words: standards and devotion. She holds colleagues to very high standards, and, in turn, is shamelessly devoted to them. Callahan says the best leaders approach employees with generosity, respect, integrity, and truthfulness.
“I’ve worked with many people who I just love and adore, but at some point, if they don’t meet the standards that we need to be excellent, and because I care about them so much, I am very truthful to them,” she says. Callahan believes it is critical to give people the freedom to either up their game or decide the role isn’t a right fit for them anymore.
“When you approach people with that kind of understanding of them, they trust you,” she says. “You don’t lose the relationship, even though they may lose or change their job.”
Whether colleagues, clients, or those in the outside world, Callahan says it is important to remember that we are all human beings first-and not just patients, or mothers, or executives. Those principles have transferred well to her work with the boards she sits on. Driven by the experiences with her own parents (Callahan’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was in her thirties), the executive is involved with Women Against Alzheimer’s and the Arthritis Foundation. Callahan, who remembers as a child struggling to find sources of support or guidance with her mother’s condition, hopes “to help families understand the resources that are available to help them get through it.”
She says her biggest passion is “giving a voice to people that maybe haven’t had a voice or can’t have a voice.” Callahan currently serves as vice chair (she will be the chair in 2020) for the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the nation’s largest LGBT super political action committee (PAC), which helps LGBTQ candidates get elected at every level of government. For her personally, marriage, Callahan says, never seemed like a possibility, and she felt out of place in society. But that changed last October, when Callahan and her partner, Taryn, were married.
Callahan says she was fortunate to work in digital healthcare marketing during its infancy, and has enjoyed a front-row view of its evolution since. Overall, her predictions for the future of healthcare marketing are rooted in learning how to better anticipate what people will need next. “I hate calling patients ‘patients’ because nobody’s a patient, right? We’re actually human beings, not consumers,” she says.
Callahan believes, in brand messaging, that the interests of doctors and patients have traditionally been considered separately-and that approach needs to change. When targeting a doctor, we understand a lot about that person, but often don’t look closely at his or her patient population, she explains.
“You could have two physicians that are the same age, with the same socioeconomic status, went to the same college, and so on, but they might have vastly different populations of people that they treat; and we
haven’t really considered that before [for marketing],” says Callahan.
Conversely, when targeting a patient, brand teams don’t necessarily tap into the importance of who their doctor is. Understanding that relationship, Callahan says, is critical to creating more effective targeted outreach and “to maximize the impact of what we’re trying to message.”
For example, Callahan shares a hypothetical situation, where a lung cancer patient could be on immunotherapy and he or she is willing to try any possible treatment; however, the patient’s doctor may not be forward-thinking or is hesitant to prescribe new lines of treatment-causing what she calls a mismatch. “I think it’s about understanding both sides,” Callahan says, and applying the right custom messages.
A future with more marketing customization will be key as treatment advances. For example, Callahan notes that gene and cellular therapy, as well as emerging technologies such as gene editing, require a real need to understand who the patient is and who the doctor is-along with the various impacting factors involved. Those can include patients having to go to specialized hospitals for drug administration, life and job changes, and treatment cost and reimbursement issues.
“It’s understanding all of that and making sure everyone has the information they need to make the best decision for that particular patient,” says Callahan. “A cookie-cutter advertisement or message will fall flat.”
Christen Harm is Pharm Exec’s Associate Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Managing Editor Michael Christel contributed to this report