LOS ANGELES, August 3—Some people launch a public relations firm knowing exactly what they want it to be in five, 10, 15 years time. They know what kind of clients they want to serve and what kind of work they want to do and what kind of image they want in the marketplace. For others, achieving that clarity of vision takes a little longer.
When Roger Fischer opened the doors of his own public relations firm, Pollare Fischer, back in 1983, its first three clients were technology companies. Fischer took a less than direct route from those origins to where he is today, heading what is probably the largest healthcare public relations operation on the west coast.
This week, Fischer & Partners officially changed its name to FischerHealth, marking just the latest transition for its founder, who got into the healthcare business almost by accident and who has built one of the nation’s leading healthcare PR firms without any of the pharmaceutical business that drives most others in that niche.
“When I started this firm in 1983, after leaving Rogers & Associates, our first three clients were all technology clients,” he says. “My partner, Frank Pollare, specialized in technology, and so he led that business. A year into the business, a New York venture capital firm that worked with one of our tech clients approached us and asked us if we had any healthcare experience. We told them we didn’t and they said it didn’t matter, and so we had our first healthcare client, a medical technology company. And because Frank was leading the technology accounts, I led the healthcare business.
“If it had been an entertainment client, I might have been sitting here as an entertainment expert.”
While Fischer had no experience in the healthcare arena, he set about learning the field on the job. He attended trade shows and made a point of catching as many presentations as possible at healthcare analyst conferences, and he listened carefully to his clients, developing his expertise in the field while managing what was still a generalist agency.
Pollare and Fischer split up in the late 80s and Fischer took on another partner, consumer specialist Steve Smith. That partnership ended in 1994, and Fischer found himself out on his own, with an account mix that included healthcare technology clients, HMOs, and American Express, his only non-healthcare client but one that represented 25 percent of his firm’s income.
Most agency principals would balk at the idea of voluntarily surrendering 25 percent of their income, but Fischer says the decision was an easy one. “It wasn’t as if we suddenly decided to become a healthcare firm,” he says. “We had been focusing increasingly on healthcare, and it was the healthcare work that most energized our staff. I looked externally and I saw there was not a lot of competition for what we wanted to do. There were very few healthcare firms on the west coast, and the firms on the east coast were mostly focused on the pharmaceutical business.”
Fischer elected to focus on three areas: medical devices, where one of his first award-winning programs was on behalf of ReSound, a hearing aid manufacturer; healthcare technology, including systems and software marketed to healthcare providers; and the payor-provider market, including managed care companies. (The firm is expanding into the biotechnology arena, and is even handling consumer healthcare programs for some clients, and Fischer doesn’t rule out pharmaceutical work, perhaps in partnership with a larger agency.)
“We have the best of both worlds,” he says. “We get to work with exciting emerging technology companies, but we also get to market products that are saving peoples lives. When I worked in the tech world, I got the feeling that every new product introduction was essentially the same. In the healthcare world, there are different issues that impact every new product. Not only that, but these are products that really make a difference.”
That’s a formula that has helped the agency recruit bright, young talent—as well as some more seasoned practitioners who have worked in the technology sector and eventually come to find it personally and professionally unrewarding. Still, recruitment is a challenge, and Fischer says he has had to go outside of Los Angeles, which is not a healthcare town, to find good people.
That’s one reason for the name change. As a boutique firm—revenues last year were around $5.3 million—Fischer doesn’t have the name recognition it needs among potential recruits. At least now they will know what it does.