The Organizational Man

June 18, 2007
Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 0, Issue 0

Scott Cotherman has a thing for companies. He flat out loves them. Most of all, he loves making them into something bigger and better. He worked his magic on Chicago's Corbett Agency in the late '90s when, as COO, he transformed it from a regional agency into a global medical-communications company serving mega-brands. And in 2004, he was the brains behind the merging of the Corbett and Accel agencies that transformed them into the Corbett Accel Healthcare Group (a member of the Omnicom Group, the world's largest advertising holding company). Under his leadership, as CEO, the combined entity has since doubled in size. It now includes Accel Health, Corbett, Surge, Iris, and Kinect. Cotherman, who combines Midwestern warmth with CEO sophistication, describes himself as being passionate about organizations, transformational change, leadership development, and the future. AGENCY CONFIDENTIAL met with him recently over a lunch of chicken sandwiches, potato chips, and Diet Cokes. An engaging story-teller, he has..

Scott Cotherman has a thing for companies. He flat out loves them. Most of all, he loves making them into something bigger and better. He worked his magic on Chicago's Corbett Agency in the late '90s when, as COO, he transformed it from a regional agency into a global medical-communications company serving mega-brands. And in 2004, he was the brains behind the merging of the Corbett and Accel agencies that transformed them into the Corbett Accel Healthcare Group (a member of the Omnicom Group, the world's largest advertising holding company). Under his leadership, as CEO, the combined entity has since doubled in size. It now includes Accel Health, Corbett, Surge, Iris, and Kinect. Cotherman, who combines Midwestern warmth with CEO sophistication, describes himself as being passionate about organizations, transformational change, leadership development, and the future. AGENCY CONFIDENTIAL met with him recently over a lunch of chicken sandwiches, potato chips, and Diet Cokes. An engaging story-teller, he has a way of enlivening the driest of management topics.

Going after what you want

At 23, I knew I wanted to run a company. I was working in human resources doing succession planning, and I had access to the executive files of the people leading the companies. I noticed none of them had human resources as a background. They all had sales backgrounds. So I said, 'Well, I want to run a company and they're all running companies so I'd better get sales experience....'

I worked for an orthodontic company, braces, and one of the things that's kind of expected from the sales people is that you will wear braces. And if you're really good, you find somebody who's a big account. And you say, 'Doctor, I'd like you to treat me. I'd like to have these new-fangled braces which you don't have any experience with. And I'll give you free product in exchange for your service.' And he says, 'Yes.' So he got experience with this great product and I built a relationship with him over a couple of years while I was having my teeth moved, and basically, he becomes my customer, right? I mean, that's the strategy.

So, I was wearing Invisible Braces, which went on the back of the teeth. And the company didn't want to pay to hire models for the brochures. So they said, 'We want real people doing it. Hey, get that Cotherman kid in Chicago to get to the advertising agency.' I went on a photo shoot and I met all these really fun people and they were all talking about the future and they were having a good time. And I'm going, I think I'd like to do what they're doing. And the rest is history.

A primary purpose

Corbett Accel Healthcare Group is really going through a pretty significant point of change. We did a merger three years ago with another health care agency within Omnicom Group Healthcare. And what resulted are five incredible companies. The entire company is based upon some very strong organizational constructs. The first one, 'Life is Too Short,' we call our purpose, some people might call it our 'mission.'

Life's too short

'Life's too short' works on three levels. It connects us in the area of extending and enhancing human life, which is what our clients do. It connects us with the brands that we market because of their all-too-short brand lives. And it connects us with the people in the company because we want to extend their organizational life with us, if you will.

Our value proposition is very simple as well: 'We grow leaders.' We grow leadership talent. We invest disproportionately in learning and development activities versus other healthcare companies in the industry, and we know this primarily because of our relationship with the Omnicom Group.

On having values

When you talk about enduring relationships, which is something that we talk about a lot (enduring relationships with brands, with clients, and with people), you'd better have a track record of having enduring relationships, of having continuity in clients, in the brands you can handle for as long as you can, and for the people who work for you. And that has been a hallmark for our organization for decades. We're a value-based organization.

Values in action

We hired a group creative director about a year ago, and we were debriefing from the business pitch. We have exercises where we talk about what was positive and what needs to change the next time around, and how we incorporate that into what we do. And one of the positive things the group creative director pointed to was 'No yelling.' When I asked what she meant, she said at all the agencies she'd been at, when they were going through this enormous pressure of time and deliverables and everything else, there was always somebody yelling at somebody else. And she said, 'This was an experience where nobody yelled at anybody even though the intensity and the pressure was still there.' It really stuck because to me those were our values in action.

Pleasing the customers

A client stopped me in the hallway after a couple days at the agency and said to me, 'Scott, I don't know how you do it, but I've never worked with or at any other organization that has such quality of talent from the very top of the company to the very bottom of the company.' This was a client from a major specialty pharmaceutical company, so he's worked with many companies and many people over his career, internally, externally, his competitors, but also from a supplier standpoint. It was one of my proudest moments because I realized the operating strategy and the constructs upon which the company was built were working. He didn't know what was going on in the kitchen. But he was saying, 'This is the best meal I've ever had.' And essentially, 'I'm going to keep coming back for more.' And that client is a 20-plus-year client at the organization now.

Relationship endurance

Most of our clients have been with us for long periods of time. Bristol-Myers Squibb has gone through a series of acquisitions, and what you have is a client that's been with us for the entire life of the Chicago-based part of the organization, 45 years. They founded the company with Westwood Pharmaceuticals. Frank Corbett and Westwood Pharmaceuticals then became a part of E.R. Squibb and Sons, which ultimately merged with Bristol-Myers. So we tend to say there's a connected family line all the way through. And it's really a 45-year continuous relationship that's existing. We've had Merck as a client for over 15 years. We've had GlaxoSmithKline for over eight years. They happen to be the clients where we have long-standing relationships and growing brand assignments. We earn their trust and they continue to give us their business.

On cultivating talent

At the very core of what we do is a devotion to top talent and a belief in enduring relationships. Everything we do is centered around trying to find and develop the highest caliber talent we possibly can. It explains why we make a five-to-seven-fold greater investment in learning and development than the average healthcare agency. It's not a slogan. It's not even just a statement. It is reality. We're looking for the kind of people who buy into what we're doing.

On working across geographies

We're the only company that has a major presence in the two largest markets in the country for healthcare advertising agencies. Half of our employees are here in New York and half of our employees are in Chicago. Our ability to work across geographies, taking advantage of what's going on in Chicago and taking advantage of what's going on in New York and blending those two things together, gives us a freshness, and overall makes us a stronger organization.

On passion

My passion, and what I studied in school was organization development and transformational change. It basically means seeing what it takes to get from A to B. So, when it gets there, you're well aligned to take advantage of the opportunity.

On the future

We are going to see fairly dramatic changes in the healthcare industry. Any time the government becomes your largest customer you're going to be dealing with class pressures. From a societal standpoint the pharmaceutical industry is very embattled when it comes to their image. I've heard them referred to as the new tobacco. That is a real problem for an industry that has probably done more to contribute to increased life expectancy than any other part of the healthcare industry today.

Digital ubiquity

The digital environment is now ubiquitous. People are going to be more connected than they've ever been. What we're seeing today is the ability to gather information from all corners of the world in a nanosecond. As connectivity grows, there will be a more educated patient, and a more educated physician. As a result, accountability will grow. It gets back to what I was saying: You have to be transparent; you have to be honest; you have to provide good quality access to information that is truthful.