Though initially skeptical about working together, Robert Chandler and Gianfranco Chicco bonded over their client-centric approach, which is now the backbone of their eponymous firm.
In healthcare PR, one would struggle to find a duo more in lockstep than Robert Chandler and Gianfranco Chicco.
Together they are the face and persona of their eponymous firm, which helped launched the culturally iconic brand Viagra. They talk about a common vision for a firm that they grew from a two-person shop into a global force. They finish each other's sentences.
But when they first met, they didn't like each other too much.
Chandler had been with Burson-Marsteller for eight years when Chicco arrived at the firm, a place Chicco describes as "a beacon for the best of the best." Each had already made a name for himself. Former colleagues attest to a bit of ego clash around the office.
"Back then, we were very competitive," Chandler muses. "Senior management said we had to start working more cooperatively. We didn't necessarily believe it, but the writing was on the wall."
Chandler is known for having a tough veneer and liking order. Chicco is more soft-spoken and easygoing.
But the PR veterans slowly realized that they are more alike than not. Although they resisted acknowledging it at first, Chicco notes that it was clear that they had a common philosophy that set them apart. "We were a little different than other people [at Burson]," he says. "We were very focused on the client."
Chandler adds, "Sometimes people get so caught up in the business of business they forget about the deliverable."
Their first major joint project came when a key client needed a global repositioning. Senior management saw a dream team. But the duo was wary.
"There was a lot of jockeying to see whether he could trust me and I could trust him," Chandler says.
But their managers were on to something. In 1995, the duo left Burson to start their own agency.
"We knew what clients did and didn't like," Chicco says. "People talk about being client-focused, but we built a business around that."
In the Chandler Chicco Agency's airy, loft-like space in Manhattan's Meatpacking District, desks are arranged in clusters, nary a cubicle wall in sight. Senior staffers share the same space - and many of the same responsibilities - as more junior employees. In fact, it's hard to judge seniority at all because there are no titles at the firm.
"All those things make people think about themselves first," Chicco notes. "At the time, it was pioneering."
CCA's approach is unconventional, not only for an agency, but for one specializing in the highly regulated and often technical fields of healthcare and biotechnology. But Chandler notes that the mindsets of patients and physicians are changing - and healthcare marketing is embracing many consumer tactics.
"You must be able to see things [the client] can't see," he says. "We've had pharma companies say that they don't want people to think how they think."
Chandler and Chicco launched their agency in a 750-square-foot apartment that had "very little air conditioning," Chandler recalls. They decided not to poach any existing Burson accounts, but grew the firm from new work awarded to them by their former clients.
Ten years later, CCA boasts 200 employees, $40 million in revenue, four global offices, seven specialty offerings (such as advertising, branding, and interactive), and strategic partnerships with agencies in China and Korea.
"Our objective wasn't to be the biggest healthcare agency," Chicco says. "We go from one day to the next. We don't have five-year plans. It's based on clients and what they want us to do."
"We never, never, never think about money," adds Chandler. "We think about winning ... and money will come."
Caroline Van Hove, senior manager for corporate communications at Allergan, notes that CCA is a one-stop shop. The firm currently handles Allergan's corporate and Botox businesses.
"It's a powerful group of talent," Van Hove says, noting that the account team includes lawyers, scientists, and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. "The PR world is very broad to CCA. They're not linear thinkers. They're dynamic and innovative in their approach to grassroots PR and experiential marketing."
Growth, however, comes with growing pains. CCA recently created a second tier of leadership, a council of 10 people who lead the biggest accounts.
"A little piece of them pines for the old days because they don't know everyone," says Lisa Stockman, who has been with the agency since its first year.
But the principals note that their firm is now something of a matrix, with smaller boutique companies within the larger entity. The culture is closely guarded by the principals and staff alike, and draws people who are attracted to the firm's unconventional approach.
Sydney Rubin, who sold her agency, Ignition Strategic Communications, to CCA earlier this year, notes that there are common values between the two firms. She describes them as fast access, no internal politics, and an environment where people want to work.
"I was immediately struck by their excellent instincts, honesty, humor, and heart," she says. "You don't have to work with them for 10 years to see it."
Chandler notes that the agency sets yearly goals each December. The current focuses are health policy, global expansion, and research and measurement, he says, rattling off a list that he cautions is by no means exhaustive.
Despite a decade in business together, Chandler and Chicco retain their old adversarial approach - not in the rivalry sense, but in the way the term is used to describe the US justice system.
"These two men see things very differently," says Rubin. "You see good, spirited debate."
"There's creative conflict," Stockman adds. "They challenge each other. [But] through that, they arrive at truth."
Principal, Chandler Chicco Agency
Various positions to EVP/MD of healthcare sector, Burson-Marsteller
Assoc. administrator, Methodist Hospital
Director of community relations, Wyandotte General Hospital
Public affairs editor, Owens Corning
Principal, Chandler Chicco Agency
Various positions to EVP, Burson-Marsteller
SVP, Rowland Company Worldwide
SVP and director of the medical and international divisions, Ruder Finn