Celebrating 10 Years of hippo: Q&A with Jim Brown, Partner & CEO

September 25, 2017

Jim Brown, CEO of Hippo

It’s been a decade since hippo first made its mark on the healthcare advertising world. A lot has happened in healthcare since 2007, not to mention a major economic downturn that shook the industry just a year after hippo came onto the scene. When you get the whole story of what was happening inside and outside of hippo, the ten-year anniversary becomes a testament to the resilience of both the brand and the people behind it.

In honor of hippo turning ten, we sat down with CEO Jim Brown, who’s been with hippo since day one, to get his take on where hippo has been and where it’s heading.

1. When hippo was established in 2007, there was already significant change taking place at the agency. You had just re-branded from John Muller & Co. Why establish a separate division of the agency just for healthcare during a time of uncertainty? 

I had just joined the agency as a partner, along with Phil Bressler. From day one, I was the biggest fan of establishing a healthcare division of the agency. I was fortunate to have a good friend, Paul Welsh, who had founded NKH&W and happened to work for another local agency. Paul reflected back on his career and said that if he had to do it over again, he would have created a specialty agency. As a specialist, you have the advantage of clients seeking out your expertise. In addition, we needed to liberate MBB to do the kind of creative work it needed to do to get noticed. We had a lot of security in the healthcare arena with some great clients who made up nearly 50% of our total revenue at the time. This gave us the opportunity to take bigger risks with MBB. By establishing a separate division of the agency, we were able to be intentional about who MBB was and who hippo was going to be.

2. Given all the economic and political turmoil, how did hippo survive? 

First and foremost, we had great clients. These clients, like all businesses at the time, cut back on spending and expected their agency to deliver a strong ROI. hippo had no choice but to live up to this expectation. It was sink or swim like hell. That was the reality that hippo was born into.

It was actually to our advantage that hippo was not a decade-old agency. Those were the agencies that were hit hardest, the ones who needed to modernize but were so entrenched in how things used to be that they didn’t know how. Recessions make companies sharpen their pencils. We were lucky to be starting out with a sharpened pencil. We let the recession define us for the better. We were thoughtful. We were strategic. We learned to worry about the things we could control and not worry about the things we couldn’t control.

3. Who came up with the name hippo…and why hippo?

If I remember correctly, Shan Neely, our Creative Director at the time, and now Executive Creative Director and Partner, came up with hippo.

Our name, hippo, is actually inspired by one of history’s first physicians. Hippocrates revolutionized medicine, establishing it as a unique, scientific discipline focused on the ethical treatment of patients. More importantly, Hippocrates realized that medicine was a blend of science and art. We think Hippocrates’ beliefs mirror many of our perspectives on healthcare marketing. That it too, is a blend of science and art. That we must preserve ethical and moral standards and that patients—and clients—should be treated with respect and courtesy.

As for our hippo logo, besides the obvious word/image association between Hippocrates and hippos, there’s actually a lot to like about Hippopotamus amphibious. Hippos are versatile and a symbol of rejuvenation. As an agency, we’re versatile, too, and we help healthcare organizations rejuvenate their brands. The hippo is also considered the most aggressive animal in Africa. In a competitive world, we like to think aggressiveness and speed are distinct advantages.

4. What makes hippo different than other agencies in town/other healthcare agencies?

When hippo was founded, it was the point of origin that made us different. At the time, healthcare agencies were being created by healthcare marketing executives with years of experience in health systems. These agencies had the advantage of being strategic but lacked the creative skillset needed to set them apart.

What hippo aimed to do was be a creative shop that created a strategic position around the healthcare discipline. As a creative agency, we already understood the mind of the consumer. We were, and continue to be, more comfortable taking risky ideas to our clients, developing campaigns aimed at consumers and not limited by an idea of how hospitals are supposed to work.

5. What does 2027 look like for hippo?

The consumer perspective helped us get our foot in the door, and while it is more important now than ever, it is an idea that others have caught up to.

Consumerism is still pivotal, but it’s more of a buzzword in the industry right now than ever before. Now, in order set ourselves apart from competitors, hippo must not only rely on our prior creative and strategic experience. We must disrupt traditional healthcare marketing approaches by delivering ideas that are different, impactful and measurable.

I believe hospitals will get smaller, just like banks have grown in footprint but not in physical size. Hospitals won’t need as much real estate so they will be forced to bring in other sources of revenue by offering more products. No one really talks about the number of beds they have like they did ten years ago. Now, they talk about number of lives impacted.

And that is what I love about healthcare. It is mission-driven and community focused. We have the opportunity to help healthcare systems make a difference in people’s live. As long as that opportunity continues to exist, hippo will continue to be here to support the cause.

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