PROFILE: Levins' rise to top of healthcare PR was no accident

Ilyssa Levins has been in healthcare PR for 20 years, and now runs GCI's global healthcare group. Though she fell into her specialty rather unexpectedly, she is now fiercely attached to it.

Ilyssa Levins has been in healthcare PR for 20 years, and now runs GCI's global healthcare group. Though she fell into her specialty rather unexpectedly, she is now fiercely attached to it.

Ilyssa Levins, GCI's chairman of global healthcare, celebrates 20 years in the PR business this month. That milestone is even more noteworthy because, in looking for a PR job early on, she basically fell into healthcare as a specialty. And yet, she is now so passionate about what she does that she confesses, "If I moved out of healthcare, I would move out of PR." A self-proclaimed die-hard New Yorker, Levins was born and raised on Long Island, and graduated from New York University in 1980. She majored in journalism with a PR concentration because a friend's relative described her career in the industry as being predominantly about writing. "She explained how much more there was to PR than socializing, and I knew from that moment that it was what I wanted to do," Levins says. After spending a year responding to every relevant posting in The New York Times, she finally landed a job at Gross Townsend Frank Hoffman, a boutique healthcare communications agency. "Healthcare was never even on the horizon for me," she reveals. "I had no science background at all, so I had to learn it all through osmosis." Though she has technically been with the same organization for two decades, the mergers and promotions that occurred during that time have essentially broken her career up into four distinct phases. Levins refers to her time at Gross Townsend (1982-1986) as the "growth phase," mainly because it was her first exposure to the healthcare area. Science-heavy oncology accounts, contraceptive launches, and issues advocacy were among the projects she recalls from her first four years in the sector. After being promoted each year since her hiring, Levins eased into her "integrated marketing phase." In 1986, Grey Advertising (now Grey Worldwide) bought Gross Townsend to form the Grey Healthcare Group (GHG). At Grey, Levins managed to maintain her record of being promoted every year, and was named president of Grey Healthcare Group's PR division in 1991. It was during this second phase that her partnership with Lynn O'Connor Vos, current CEO of Grey Healthcare Group, began. "Ilyssa is fearless in her approach to PR, and she has a genuine curiosity about and interest in healthcare," says Vos. "Healthcare is best suited for passionate people, and she is certainly one of them." One of the many things Levins is passionate about is the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, a group dedicated to defending the industry's right to promote its messages. She helped found the organization in 1991, and served as its spokesperson to the PR community. Instrumental in getting the Public Relations Society of America to join the coalition, Levins "was a prime motivator in several of the initiatives that we undertook," recalls executive director Jack Angel. "She has boundless energy, is always volunteering, and never says no to anything." Levins' healthcare passion extends from the professional to the personal. She works out seven days a week. And she put her talent as a healthcare advocate to work in her personal life in 1991, when her mother died from a rare form of cancer. "Because of my access to thoughts leaders, I was able to give my mother the care she needed," Levins says. "My healthcare background allowed me to make a lot of informed decisions for her while she was sick." Coming off an eventful year, phase three - "growth as a practice" - spanned the period from 1992 to 1997. During these final years as a small, New York-based practice, GHG PR was at the top of its game. It grew by 56%. Inside PR named it the number-one "Hottest Agency" in 1992 and 1993, and named Levins a PR All-Star in 1992. Stellar growth, culminated by GHG PR's merger with GCI in 1998, began the current phase of Levins' career, which she calls "growth as part of a major PR company." "I was one of the biggest advocates of the merger," she says. "I knew it would be beneficial to the growth of the healthcare arm to live in a larger PR agency." As predicted, the expanded company's revenues nearly tripled in less than two years. In 1999, the Healthcare Business Women's Association named Levins a "Rising Star." Despite being tapped as global healthcare practice leader of GCI in 2000 (she was previously in charge of only North America), Levins says the more important event of her life in that year was her marriage. Until then, she admits, she did not have time to get married because she made her career her life. "In a way, my job finally gave me permission to get married at age 41. Before we merged with GCI, PR was an arm of a marketing agency, and it was just me. Now healthcare is part of a PR agency, and I am just one of many incredibly talented PR gurus around the country and the world." She and her husband, Michel, held two wedding ceremonies - a traditional one in New York and a Moroccan one in Israel. When asked about it, Levins boasts, "It was a really great opportunity for me to put my event-planning skills to work." Talented team members and a mature organization may have granted her more personal time, but it seems as though old habits are hard to break. ------------- Ilyssa Levins 1982-1986 Gross Townsend Frank Hoffman (GTFH) 1986 Grey Advertising acquires GTFH to form Grey Healthcare Group (GHG) 1998 GCI merges with GHG PR 2000 Named global practice leader of GCI healthcare

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