This November, AXON London marks its 15-year anniversary. From being an agency of one, to becoming an integral part of the AVENIR GLOBAL network and ranked in the top five largest healthcare communications consultancy in the UK, AXON London has gone from strength to strength. Here, we speak to AXON’s founder and International Managing Partner, Ralph Sutton, on what this milestone means to him, what he views as the secret to AXON’s success, as well as the future of the agency.
What was your vision when you joined AXON to set up our operations in London?
I had seen that there were public relations firms dabbling in medical communications, and medical communications firms attempting to do public relations. From the outset, it was critical for AXON to be strong in both disciplines, and only once we had strength in both could we really thrive through collaboration across the teams. That worked!
We also wanted AXON to be able to beat the big networks by being smarter and attracting talent who first and foremost wanted to do great work for clients, rather than having to think all the time about shareholders. That worked too!
Those were two pretty big ambitions to have when sitting on my own in my front room, but I have always liked to think big.
What has been your proudest moment at AXON?
There have been so many, it’s hard to pick. In week one, it was getting my first new business meeting in the diary, by year three, it was beating the world’s largest public relations firm in a pitch where they were the incumbent. Being named last year as “one to watch” by PR Week was cool. Along the way, becoming International Managing Partner of our network, opening new offices, expanding through acquisitions and doing outstanding work for our clients have all been sources of great pride.
It’s also great seeing people who have been with us for a while being promoted for the second or third time. That means we have really done something right with developing that person’s career.
But honestly there are just some days when I walk onto the floor, see over a hundred people and think, “wow, we built this from nothing and now we really are a world beater”.
In what ways has AXON evolved since you joined?
Well we are no longer in my front room, which is good! In fact, AXON now has operations in five countries.
For a long time we thought of ourselves as a smart, nimble, independent players. But when you see the clients that we work on, and the work we do, we have evolved into being a world-class global healthcare communications firm. We have come a very long way.
One of our values is collaboration, and the way that has evolved has really taken our business forward. Initially that meant collaboration between medical communications and public relations, then it was collaboration with other offices and with team members within our sister firm Madano. Going forward it will be collaboration with people from across our network.
What about AXON hasn’t changed since you joined?
It may sound corny, but I honestly believe our values have remained consistent throughout the 15 years. That’s because our senior team live them every day, and our people genuinely believe in what we as a firm stand for.
How would you describe the people at AXON in one word?
Smart. That’s not about academic achievement, though many of our people have achieved a great deal – but rather the ability to analyse a topic, define what really matters, shape a strategy and execute effectively. We can’t all do all of those things every day, but collectively we are very good at that. And that’s really smart – how we work together.
How has the industry changed in the last 15 years, and how do you think AXON will evolve to meet future changes?
Some things have not changed. When I see presentations being delivered at congresses, they still look pretty much the same as they did in 2003. Many companies’ press releases look the same. And that is a real shame, when there are so many different ways to tell an organisation’s story, or communicate the meaning of data. We need to push our clients and innovate where possible.
But much has changed. In my first week I learnt how to change the glossy paper cartridge on our fax machine. For anyone who does not know what a fax is, google it. 15 years ago, the internet was still young, Facebook was not founded until the following year, and we were about 30 people in London by the time the iPhone was launched.
There is no doubt that technology is the huge change. But there has also been a transformation is the way businesses think about communications. In 2003 we still needed to argue that businesses needed professional communications support. Now, it is a given. Both in-house public relations and medical communications teams have grown, but the consultancy environment has also grown significantly. When I started out, public relations was a young person’s game. I believed I would have to change careers by my mid-30s, otherwise I would be a dinosaur! Well, I’ve somehow managed to eke out a living into my 50s and it’s great to see colleagues of all ages in the business. We need that diversity. So knowing that people can have a life-long career in communications is quite a transformation. Mine is probably the first generation where that became possible.
As for the future, I am very positive. We have expanded from medical communications and public relations to offer clients support through the integration of insights, strategy, creative and execution across multiple channels. That means having specialists in insights, creative, market access, advocacy and digital, as well as having outstanding scientific content specialists and client service. We call this approach to integrated communications “thinking in colour”.
Technology will continue to evolve rapidly and I am sure people in the 2030s, reading about how AXON has evolved, will laugh at the fact that the basic communications tools they use every day didn’t even exist in 2018.
But a few things have always been consistent. We work in complex, highly regulated industries and people need to transform complex science into clear, simple stories. That won’t change. I am certain AXON will still be here in 15 years, still distilling complex science and communicating it in compelling ways. But what those ways will be is anyone’s guess! It will be fun watching it though.
Finally – what would you say is your top communications tip?
Think big. And of course, think in colour! Be imaginative and ambitious – for our clients, for our business and for our careers. But always remember that the best thinking, the biggest thinking comes from working with colleagues. And we are lucky to have some of the best in the business, so both to our own people and to our clients, I would say enjoy working with colleagues from across our network and getting fresh perspectives that to help achieve great results.
Finally, smart people keep learning. So if I can sneak in a second tip, it is never to stop learning. AXON will always be a great place for people to keep learning from others.