Fast-growing Real Chemistry names new CEO to lead agency's digital transformation

Real Chemistry has been on a growth tear over the last two years, gobbling up smaller companies and adding hundreds of new hires. It also more than doubled its revenues, which are expected to approach the half-billion-dollar mark this year.

Formerly W20, the pharma and healthcare marketing communications agency underscored the transformation, accelerated by the pandemic’s impact on healthcare, with a new name and rebrand last March.

Now, it’s getting a new top executive, too.

Jim Weiss, who’s helmed the company since launching it as a solo business 20 years ago, will hand over the reins on Jan. 3 to Shankar Narayanan, the former chief operating officer for payer analytics firm Equian, the company announced Thursday afternoon.

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Weiss will move into the chairman’s seat and will also take a new position as executive advisor to New Mountain Capital, Real Chemistry’s private equity investor. In the advisory role, he'll focus on identifying investment opportunities “where the life sciences and technology meet.”

Why the shakeup?

“I’ve always been good about knowing when it’s the right time to do things and make changes. This is one of those moments,” Weiss said. 

With the 1,800-person agency at an “important inflection point,” Weiss said it was critical to bring on a CEO with the background to lead the company into the next growth phase. 

Narayanan “brings the exact right expertise” as Real Chemistry expands its data and tech-driven marketing and communications capabilities and consolidates recent acquisitions, which range from a celebrity marketing shop to a social media analytics firm, Weiss said.

Narayanan integrated nine different companies at Equian while doubling revenues, Weiss noted, helping to position it for sale to pharmacy benefit manager Optum. At Cognizant, he grew the life sciences business from $800 million to $1.3 billion in revenue.

After working on the payer side at a large corporation and taking a year off, Narayanan said he wanted to return to his biopharma roots in a role where he could lead a digital transformation at a smaller company with a more agile, entrepreneurial culture. Real Chemistry checked all the boxes.

“This is an organization that cares deeply about the work we do for our clients and deeply about the people who work here,” he added. One of his top priorities will be helping the firm scale and “mature operationally and technology-wise” so it can grow without sacrificing its culture or reputation for quality. He will be based in Boston.
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For Weiss’ part, he said moving into the chairman and advisory roles will let him play to his networking and mentoring strengths and keep an eye on the big picture “to make sure we’re figuring out where the puck is going” in the rapidly changing life sciences industry.

“We’ve always done a good job of looking around the corner, staying ahead of trends and riding these waves of evolution. It’s why we’ve done so well,” Weiss added. “I think in this role I can help ensure that [continues] ... because the opportunity has never been bigger or more urgent.”