David Bowen
David Bowen

As an avid scuba diver, I know that the most productive and vibrant habitats are often to be found at the interface between dissimilar ecosystems, where different species and conditions mix to form an environment that supports growth and development. As in nature, so too in life.

Many of the most productive collaborations I’ve had in business, philanthropy and policy have come about through the mixing of people with different backgrounds, approaches to problems and professional cultures. The interchange of ideas and perspectives that comes from this mixing often results in new initiatives and better ways of tackling deep-rooted challenges.

WPP Health and The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) announced a partnership on April 7 that I hope is an example of the productive mixing of different cultures and different ways of approaching health problems. As global lead for health for Hill+Knowlton Strategies, I had the privilege of helping create this partnership with Professor Baron Peter Piot, the distinguished Director of LSHTM.

At first glance, there might not appear to be much that unites the LSHTM and WPP Health. The School has an extraordinary track record of achievement in tackling public health problems and undertaking research to improve lives. WPP Health is a commercial communications and consulting specialty that works on behalf of clients around the world that are engaged in health and healthcare. The two entities are indeed dissimilar ecosystems in their structure, mission and the talent pools of people from which they draw.

What unites the two partners, however, is a focus on using communications to change behaviors related to health. Health decisions at all levels converge on a decision to act, whether that’s an individual action such as hanging a bed net or taking a screening test, or whether that’s a societal decision such as investing in clean water or immunizations. While those decisions can be complex and affected by a variety of factors, clear and persuasive communication can cut to the heart of the decision-making process. Reaching decisionmakers effectively and through the channels that are most salient to them – whether that’s a social media post to an individual or an advocacy campaign to a policymaker – can mean the difference between an action being taken and being ignored.

WPP is a world leader in using communications to change minds and behaviors, through channels that range from traditional media, to online content, to social media to individual conversations. By combining the communications expertise of WPP with the health expertise of the LSHTM, we hope to bring benefits to both. WPP will benefit from collaboration with some of the world’s foremost researchers and public health leaders, while the LSHTM will gain access to WPP’s expertise in the most effective and dynamic means of communication.

The partnership is already producing tangible benefits. WPP Health and LSHTM are currently at work on training programs to enable students and faculty at the School to learn about the ways WPP approaches communication with real-world applications. Through training opportunities, both WPP and LSHTM can learn from one another. A series of jointly hosted events and an ongoing collaboration forum will be coming in the following days to allow the ecosystems to mix even more readily.

Although the partnership is a mixing, it is important to note that it is a partial and carefully delimited mixing. Recognizing that WPP and LSHTM have different missions, we have been careful to delineate that the partnership applies only to specified projects and areas. In no way does it constrain the academic freedom of the School or the commercial freedom of WPP.

It marks the start of what is truly a bold experiment, testing the idea that two dissimilar organizations in health can work together successfully to create sustainable benefits for both sides in a way that is consistent with the values of each.  I’m confident that the experiment will be a resounding success – and I’m looking forward to diving into the new habitat we’ve created.

***

David Bowen leads the health practice globally for Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and leads Policy & Public Affairs for WPP Health. For over a decade, David was health policy director for Senator Ted Kennedy, where he had a leading role in developing the Affordable Care Act before moving to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he led initiatives to create partnerships with governments to support polio elimination.