The obvious motivation behind three agency leaders buying back their independence

A little more than two years after buying themselves out of the global holding company giant Omnicom, Montreal healthcare agency CDM more fully declared its independence by rebranding as Fisika late last month.

The 25-person agency—led by the all-women partnership team of Priscilla Benfeito, Anna Tsouluhas and Lisa Barbusci (from left, above)—focuses most of its time and attention on pharma clients, with some nonprofit work to round out the roster.

It’s a full-service health agency that also dabbles in product development, with a patent pending on its first medical device with Health Canada. Along with the new brand, Fisika also has a new location in Montreal’s Little Italy neighbourhood.

The name, from the Greek word Fisika, roughly translates to “of course,” but with specific context, explained Tsouluhas.

Fisika is about finding a solution—or in marketing terms, landing on an insight—that is so perfect it seems obvious and you say “of course,” she said. “When you get to something, it might be difficult to get there. It might not be obvious from the start, but once you do uncover it, it actually is obvious.”

Those “eureka” moments of brand revelation are the moments Fisika is seeking with its clients. “The name actually personifies exactly what it is that we do,” she said.

While the new brand represents a definitive statement of the agency’s break from the past, it was also two years in coming in part because the three partners have been busy restructuring the agency to meet the specific needs of their Canadian clients since completing the deal in early 2020.

But there was also the matter of a worldwide public health emergency to manage through, which created what Tsouluhas described as “a great deal of flux and uncertainty.”

CDM had been owned by Omnicom for more than a decade following the acquisition of Montreal-based Boom Works in 2008. At that time, many clients wanted brand consistency in every market around the world, and the best way to do that was one agency, which meant that Omnicom wanted to expand CDM as much as possible, said Barbusci. For a while Omnicom called the agency Boom CDM, before eventually dropping Boom entirely.

“Less and less has that become a priority in pharma,” she said. Because of that, health and pharma marketers are comfortable working with independent agencies, and in a market like Canada—which is relatively small in the global pharma landscape—they like agencies that can adapt and react quickly to market requirements.

“Small and agile is what you think of when you think of an independent agency,” said Barbusci.

The buy-back has been completely amicable, and Fisika can still work with CDM on Canadian projects, she said. “If they need any support they can call us; if they need expertise in Canada, we’re still happy to help when necessary.”

While Canadian agencies being acquired by one of the holding companies happens with some regularity, the reverse move pulled off by Barbusci, Tsouluhas and Benfeito is much rarer. It was driven in part by the realization they were still somewhat constrained in how they could respond to clients, said Barbusci.

“We were able to pretty much maintain a certain level of autonomy in Canada, [but] there was always the head office that was influencing how we made decisions, and we wanted to be able to make them for ourselves,” she said.

Then there was the not-uncommon impulse many people feel when they reach a certain stage of their career: They were already running the business day in and day out, but they weren’t doing it for themselves, said Tsouluhas.

They had all been successful working for a big organizations, and knew they could continue that way, she said. But the priorities are largely determined somewhere else.

“And then there’s a point that you want to do it a certain way,” she said. They wanted to be more selective about the kinds of clients they work with and kinds of work they do.

That’s why, despite so few examples in Canada to guide them, they took the unusual step of buying back their independence. It’s a bold move in an unforgiving industry, but the trio believed in what they could do—although Tsouluhas admits a little liquid courage helped. “There was inspiration in a good bottle of Sancerre.”  

David Brown