After decades of domination by the big publicly-traded holding companies (and Edelman), the public relations agency business is ripe for the kind of disruption that has shaken up adjacent businesses, from advertising to the media itself. In this series of articles, PRovoke Media founder Paul Holmes identifies some of the firms aiming to disrupt the PR market, and talks to some of the individuals spearheading that disruption.

In the third article of this series, we talk with Shankar Narayanan, CEO of Real Chemistry, which has grown into a top 10 global agency with a series of acquisitions in the digital and data space and a focus on healthcare.

Paul Holmes: Tell me a little about your background before you came into your current role.

Shankar Narayanan: I have spent the last 25 years working within the life sciences community to transform healthcare experiences, and I have spent a good portion of my career bringing multidisciplinary teams together to drive transformation. The opportunity to continue my passion and this work at Real Chemistry has never been greater.

Before joining Real Chemistry, I served as chief operating officer at Equian, where we successfully integrated nine companies, doubled revenue, and tripled EBITDA prior to its sale to Optum, a UnitedHealth Group company.  Prior to Equian, I led the life sciences business at Cognizant, designing and implementing products and solutions that transformed clinical, commercial and manufacturing operations. Early in my career, I spent 15 years with McKinsey & Company.

PH: What did you see during that time that convinced you there was an opportunity to build something new and different.

SN: If we compare where we are today to even 10 to 15 years ago, the healthcare industry is now generating about 25% more revenue; but treating one-tenth the number of patients. We are in an era of specialty therapeutics and rare diseases—which have the potential to treat many more patients but in very personalized ways. Our clients have been shifting steadily toward this new paradigm, and the rise of AI over the past few years is enabling even greater innovation.

This is where Real Chemistry’s legacy of innovation, agility and entrepreneurism are having an impact. Our company has been successful because we were an early leader in using data and AI, and we continue to invest and expand our capabilities to not only reach audiences effectively, but in the most meaningful ways.

PH: How will what you are building now be different from the existing market leaders

SN: At our core, Real Chemistry connects people to better healthcare experiences they want and deserve. Our ethos and blueprint for success is patient centricity.

It starts with having the best people. We have deep expertise in the life sciences, healthcare delivery, digital health, medical affairs and education, public affairs, advocacy and more. We help our people bring our organization’s mission to life by democratizing access to unmatched business intelligence fueled by real-world data and AI, and fully integrating these insights into our work with clients.|

Our leadership is fueled by significant investments in machine learning and conversational and generative AI before they became the buzzworthy business headlines as they are today. Using this intelligence, we empower our clients with cutting-edge tools to build connection and create activation with stakeholders across our healthcare ecosystem.

PH: Tell me a little about New Mountain Capital, their vision for the communications business, and what makes them the right partner for Real Chemistry.

SN: New Mountain Capital is a private equity firm with research and operational expertise in carefully selected areas of healthcare, software, business services, information and data, financial services, and environmental services.

NMC is the perfect growth partner for Real Chemistry and has been supportive in how we bring new approaches to marketing communications. Our multiple acquisitions including SWOOP, starpower, 21Grams and AvantHC to expand our capabilities is a strong example of their support. Our vision, together with NMC, is to be the leading provider of AI-driven insights and marketing and communications for the healthcare industry.

PH: What made the firms you have acquired so far attractive to you? And what will you be looking for in any future acquisitions?

SN: Real Chemistry has a long history of growing through acquisitions, expanding our capabilities and expertise in areas where our clients are headed. We’ve acquired more than 10 companies in the past five years. We have made significant investments in conversational and Generative AI, HCP engagement tools and our overall medical capabilities. We identified medical communications as a strategic growth pillar for us, and it aligns closely to our mission.

We are constantly evaluating acquisitions, and we will be keeping an eye on medical, data and AI opportunities. We have a healthy pipeline of conversations going at any time, and we’re constantly evaluating multiple opportunities from an acquisition standpoint.

PH: Are there disciplines outside the traditional public relations business that you anticipate joining the Real Chemistry family?

SN: We have been expanding outside of our core public relations business for many years. We added advertising, medical affairs, medical communications, celebrity and influencer specialties, amongst others, over the past few years. We have dedicated teams who focus on verticals across public affairs, corporate pricing, advocacy, crisis communications and more.

More broadly across the organization, we have over 60 doctoral-level staff, and more than 160 analysts and data scientists.  We continue to bring in talent in specialized fields of linguistics, data science, AI and more. We plan to continue to grow and bring in more diversity of thought as we remain agile in a fast-paced industry where the only constant is change.

PH: What is your strategy for talent retention?

SN: In today’s new world of work, values, purpose, culture and communications directly impact how we do business and are core to our DNA as a company. We are in the people business—and we do not cut corners. We know to remain the best, we have to take care of our people. We do that by providing environments that are inclusive and spaces where employees can bring their authentic selves to their work. When employees are at their best, so will be their work.

In every meeting and communication with our teams, we emphasize to put family and health first before Real Chemistry. We recognize how our teams go above-and-beyond and help our employees prioritize rest through a flexible PTO policy, a sabbatical program where each employee gets five weeks off after five years of service and industry-leading family support leave through our recently revamped parental leave policy.  We also offer internal development and mentorship programs as well as support programs for continuing education and development.

PH: Do you expect agency founders to stick around for the long term and how will you incentivize them to do so.

SN: Throughout our many acquisitions, part of our strategy has always been to keep the leaders with Real Chemistry. That’s how we’ve kept our culture of entrepreneurism going through so many changes. Most of the founders are still with us. Many have taken on new and expanded roles, providing opportunities for continued growth and development. We incentivize this through our financial success, of course, but also through a culture of innovation. Founders can continue to contribute big ideas and build businesses.

PH: What is your strategy for integration? Will Real Chemistry operate as a family of brands, will you look for opportunities to cross-sell, or do you expect the firms you’re buying to come together under a unified brand at some point?

SN: Healthcare cannot be transformed in pieces. Our integrated approach is driven by a desire to maximize impact for patients. We work in a truly integrated fashion across teams and brands, leveraging our expertise collaboratively to meet client needs. We are a house of brands—however our approach is to proactively bring in multidisciplinary teams to identify what could benefit the client. We believe in structuring our teams based on what the client needs. 

PH: What are the areas of investment that you think are crucial for an agency business to invest in as societal and technological changes shift the future of the business?

RS: We have been investing in cultural infrastructure around AI—or the idea that AI should be democratized. Every one of our employees has access to these tools and are leveraging them in their day-to-day work. We use Generative AI as a tool to automate remedial tasks so that our teams can focus on strategy and creativity.

We have also made significant investments in our medical capability areas. Healthcare providers are an incredibly important stakeholder in the industry landscape. With our recent acquisition of Avant Healthcare, we now have over 450 professionals focused on medical communications, medical education, medical affairs, thought leadership and events focused on this core stakeholder.

PH: Is this a long-term agency-building project, or do you anticipate reaching a certain size and scale and then shifting from buyer to seller?

SN: We’ve always focused on being the best. Not the biggest. We don’t focus on an exact size or scale number. We remain agile and grow to help meet and exceed the needs of our clients, and the patients we help serve globally. Our growth strategy remains focused on solutions that drive impact for our clients and ultimately the patients they serve.

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