The long, strange story of Cubist's Cards Against Biotechnology

Prompted with "why I got fired from my last biotech," would you respond "an insatiable blood lust for the FDA"? Maybe "overcompensated executives," or perhaps, simply, "Ebola"? How about: "It wasn't the change in tax inversion rules that torpedoed the AbbVie/Shire deal. It was _______." "Valeant"? "Public embarrassment"? "A middle-aged CEO in shorts"?

Such would be your options if you were playing Cards Against Biotechnology, a hard-to-explain favor from a surreal party that happens to be my favorite piece of biopharma swag.

The game is a bespoke version of Cards Against Humanity, itself a less-safe-for-work riff on the milquetoast family fun of Apples to Apples. In that game, one player lays out a noun card and the others submit face-down descriptors in hopes their suggestion will be deemed the most apt. In Cubist Pharmaceuticals' version, however, instead of playing "itchy" for "bed bugs," one can guess "unrelenting genital punishment" for "a business development presentation would be incomplete without _______."

I came into possession of Cards Against Biotechnology at this year's JP Morgan Healthcare conference, an annual bash in which a gaggle of square industry types descend upon San Francisco to pitch, preen and prognosticate about the coming year in biopharma. By day, bankers, VCs, biotech execs and reporters shuffle through narrow hallways to attend company presentations and sit through back-to-back-to-back meetings in hotel suites, crowded lobbies and overstuffed cafes. But at night, JP Morganers tend to loosen their ties, scarves and definitions of "on the record" to attend the many invite-only parties that spring up around Union Square.

Now, because I can neither acquire your company nor help you close its Series B, I don't get invited to a great many of those events. And, because I'm one of the many traveling hacks who work East Coast hours while in California, I try not to stay out too late at JP Morgan, anyhow. But despite being bleary-eyed and uninvited, I did find my way into Cubist's gathering.

At this point, in mid-January, it has been a month or so since Merck ($MRK) publicly announced its intention to buy Cubist for about $8.4 billion, a deal that would close just days after the party. Most of the attendees seem to be Cubist employees, and, as one might guess, many are unsure whether they'll have jobs by year's end. One of the Cubicites I talked to worried that the culture and brand she and her colleagues helped create might get buried under the Merck moniker, and my clumsy attempt to be reassuring ("I mean, the drug is called Cubicin!") wasn't terribly moving. But, perhaps thanks to the open bar, the party never seemed somber while I was there, instead presenting a not-unpleasant, end-of-the-world sort of vibe.

Anyway, it was on the way in, passing the rows of unclaimed name tags (Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier's among them), that I first saw the cards pictured above. The staffer behind the table encouraged me to take as many decks as I'd like, adding that the company had done its best to "make them PG-13" and then kind of trailing off.

I opened the pack expecting the sort of snicker-worthy cute humor that typifies Twitter hashtags and biopharma marketing collateral. And so I was a bit shocked to find edgy, impolitic and--most alarming--actually funny stuff written on the cards. Among those skewered were serial entrepreneur Christoph Westphal; Genocea Biosciences CEO Chip Clark; and Sage Kelly, the Jefferies banker who had an interesting winter. And the company even squeezed in a joke at the expense of its own spotty intellectual property protection by including an answer card marked "Cubicin patents." As a colleague to whom I showed the deck wondered, "was that Cubist's final (expletive)-you-we're-bought to everyone?"

Hardly, said the Cubist exec who came up with the idea, pointing out that "you only make fun of people you really like."

The idea first came about in December, when Praveen Tipirneni, then the company's senior vice president of strategy, was preparing for the annual JP Morgan blowout and meeting with colleagues on how best to stand out among the morass of companies angling for attention.

"We sort of knew that this was our last hurrah," he said, and, not content with the standard procedure of designing "a plaque or whatever," Cubist "wanted to give out something we'd be remembered by, something that was different, that no one had tried before."

So, what if the collar-tugging humor of Cards Against Humanity could be appropriated for biotech? he wondered. The JP Morgan ideas team--made up of people from Cubist's communications, human resources and events departments--was understandably wary of the idea, Tipirneni said, pointing out that the allure of Cards Against Humanity is its willingness to offend, something the company had little interest in doing. But he eventually won them over and went on to secure the cautious blessing of incoming CEO Rob Perez, thereby beginning the process of separating what was edgily funny from what was plainly insulting.

But after exchanging a slew of last-minute planning emails over the holidays, the team was running out of time before JP Morgan and had to pull the trigger on the cards without getting the requisite once-over from corporate communications, Tipirneni said, crossing fingers that the group had struck the right balance.

The ensuing reaction, he said, was overwhelmingly positive, with board members, colleagues and people around the industry praising the game, requesting backup decks and asking how they could make versions of their own.

"People were actually laughing," Tipirneni said, "which is a little bit of a miracle."

And that's pretty much the end of the story. Within a week of the party, the company had become a Merck subsidiary, another biopharma with an identity all its own now integrated into a global giant. And while it's tempting to be maudlin about it and bemoan the ouroboros nature of Big Pharma M&A, that card game, however trivial, now exists as a document of how "we always tried to be a little (appropriately) different at Cubist," as Perez put it in an email.

Or, as Tipirneni said: "You always want to be at a company that, if it's gone, it'll be missed. That was Cubist."

-- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)

Next week, FiercePharmaMarketing will feature a slide show of other folks' favorite pharma swag, including photos submitted by readers. If you have a fave you'd like to send us, do it now, to our designated swag collector, Emily Wasserman (email).