PM360 2021 Trailblazer Awards Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Ed Wise

Ed Wise, Chief Executive Officer, Omnicom Health Group

Walk into any room with Ed Wise and his presence will be undeniable. Yes, that is true physically, as one colleague calls him a “giant of a man,” but it goes beyond that. It’s not long before you realize that this big man also has a big brain and a giant heart. With these attributes he has reshaped the pharmaceutical marketing industry across the past 40 years and left, well, a big impact.

His career began at Klemtner Advertising in 1981. A writer in college, he saw an opportunity to elevate the level of creativity in an industry still in its marketing infancy. About a year later he joined KPR and soon after that was recruited by a former colleague to become the first copywriter and seventh overall employee at the newly formed Cline Davis & Mann. As a copywriter and Creative Director, he did what he first set out to do—establish new creative standards for the industry.

Ed’s transformative impact began with an epiphany that came to him while working on Diflucan, an anti-fungal product for immunocompromised people. He was inspired by long-term survivors of AIDS and HIV whom he interviewed about their constant life-or-death fight.

“That was the first time I came face to face with the impact of the work we were doing,” Ed explains. “After that, it was no longer just a creative pursuit, I realized what we did had a meaningful impact on people’s lives.”

Ed’s biggest creative mark came with the launch of Viagra. The brand was—and can still be—the butt of the joke, but Ed and his team wanted to make a point about the seriousness of erectile dysfunction (ED). While the term ED previously existed, it was important to take ownership of it and provide a non-judgmental way for men to talk about their issues. So, Ed authored the now iconic “Courage” campaign, which featured former presidential candidate Bob Dole encouraging men not to be afraid to ask their doctors about ED.

Other examples of Ed’s work include enlisting the help of Hall of Fame baseball player George Brett for Bengay and launching Lipitor with a simple, but powerful campaign featuring imagery created using electron microscopy of the cross section of an artery. Meanwhile, Carol DiSanto was so impressed by a :30 spot for Equalactin that Ed had authored that it convinced her to join CDM. DiSanto, former President of The CDM Group, describes the spot as “unexpected, smart, and disarming—much like Ed,” who she worked with for 28 years before retiring in 2015.

“Ed is a gifted writer and a strategic thinker,” DiSanto says. “He believes in the power of words, the power of doing ‘the right thing,’ the power of taking action, and the power of personal performance. Some have said he can be a tough cookie, but those who have taken the time to get to know Ed will tell you his drive is fueled by integrity and the desire for people to succeed—as individuals, as teammates, and as an organization.”

From Creative Director to CEO

That drive also made Ed the perfect person to take over as President of CDM in 2001, and later CEO. Even as he moved to the C-suite, he maintained his creative mindset—in fact he made the agency’s mission, “to be the most creative in everything we do.” That led to an entrepreneurial culture in which CDM basically began incubating companies as dedicated services became new agencies, including CDMiConnect (now Patients & Purpose), AgencyRx (now DDB Health), and Entrée Health.

“My career today and likely where it will go is due to Ed’s leadership,” explains Snev Dorsonne, President, Link9. “About 11 years ago, there were rumblings that clients were going to decouple production from agency work. I decided to do a pilot of what that would mean across the organization. Afterwards, Ed encouraged me to start the first healthcare-focused production agency, Link9, which is now a thriving organization. To this day, Ed remains my counsel.”

With these additional companies, the agency morphed into a network called The CDM Group. But with this rapid growth, Ed wanted to ensure that CDM and each of the umbrella agencies didn’t lose what made them special. He established a shared-service model in which certain services (such as HR, Finances, IT, etc.) would be shared across all agencies.

“I found CDM to be a magical place, and I didn’t want to lose that,” Ed explains. “We created this singular backbone that ran through these companies to provide support in areas that all companies need without having to create individual HR, finance, IT departments for each new company. It allowed each company to have its own personality, while maintaining that magic of CDM at the center.”

The company’s success was recognized in 2015 when it was named Cannes Lions Health’s Healthcare Network of the Year.

Forming an Empire

In 2016, Omnicom decided to reorganize its companies to work better together to serve clients’ complete needs. Given his success with The CDM Group, the organization tapped Ed to lead the formation of Omnicom Health Group (OHG).

He created four service verticals: Professional agencies, Patient agencies, Payer agencies, and Medical/Evidence/Regulatory agencies. He also led the acquisitions of BioPharm Communications, Snow Companies, and Archbow Consulting. But, most importantly, he once again established an “independent-minded network, brilliantly connected,” with both shared services and values.

“Previously, the belief was that you couldn’t be both independent and connected,” Ed says. “But we attacked it as a cultural issue not as a command-and-control issue. Because you can’t force people to do what they don’t want to do, but if you make it a cultural reason why people want to work together, then that changes it forever.”

That culture is expressed through OHG’s “Open, Bold, and Generous” values, which no one lives up to more than Ed.

“Ed sets a tone from the top that no one is perfect, we should all seek to improve ourselves, and that investing time and energy in learning will payoff multifold,” says Carolyn Bartholdson, Chief Talent Officer, OHG. “Ed’s appetite for learning was evident when he began championing our OHG inclusion efforts. A few years ago, Ed warmly embraced a proposal to educate employees about identifying their personal pronouns in meetings, email signatures, etc. He understood quickly that a cis-gender leader who deliberately announces his pronouns creates space and grace for employees who identify in different ways.”

Ed is committed to creating a diverse and welcoming work environment even beyond that. Last year, the company added Gena M. Pemberton as VP, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. She launched “Healthy Inclusion,” an initiative to help improve how OHG attracts, retains, and develops underrepresented employees as well as ensuring all employees have equal access to career development and growth. Other programs include OHG Fit (which helps employees live their healthiest lives—both mentally and physically) and OHG University (learning and development programs, which saw a 30% increased use during the pandemic).

Under Ed, OHG has grown into the largest healthcare communications group in the world, serving over 100 clients through 14 agencies (including CDM), with more than 4,500 healthcare specialists worldwide, and over $1 billion in revenue in 2020.

The Biggest Heart

Beyond his work with OHG, Ed also previously served as Chairman of the American Heart Association (AHA), and continues to work with them by contributing initiatives and volunteer support over the years. Colleagues are quick to point out that the cause is apt for a person who perhaps has one of the biggest hearts in this industry.

When Andrew Gottfried, CEO, Entrée Health, found out his wife was suffering from a very serious and rare heart disease, he called Ed to inform him he needed to take a leave of absence. Ed asked Gottfried more about the heart condition and within an hour Gottfried received a call from the AHA President who recommended world-renowned specialists in New York to help get his wife the care she needed. She went on to make a full recovery.

“Ed didn’t have to do that, but immediately, his brain went to finding a way to help in a really meaningful way,” Gottfried says. “Going above and beyond to help us in our time of need just speaks to his character.”

Over the years, Ed has also dedicated time to teaching, both as a guest lecturer for the Institute for Leadership in Technology and Management (ILTM) at Bucknell as well as at the Wharton Executive MBA Program. When one of his students asked him what drives him to teach these classes, Ed paused for a second and responded:

“My career could be measured by the amount of people who I’ve had an impact on. And this is a chance for me to get a little bit more of that and help other people grow and succeed and maybe not skin their knees quite as many times as I did.”

For such a large organization, OHG has a very small attrition rate. People have chosen to remain with Ed for 10, 20, even 30 years because of the impact he has had on them. Michael Schreiber, EVP, Executive Creative Director, DDB Health, has worked with Ed for 21 years and he isn’t shy about sharing why.

“Ed is the kind of husband, father, and human being I strive to be,” Schreiber explains. “He also has a purity of heart—always recognizing that this industry is about people. Throughout his career, he has been creative in everything he does. He built an empire. He launched dozens of agencies, hundreds of brands, and thousands of careers. He truly is living a lifetime of achievements.”


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