Until a couple of years ago, when you thought of sports endorsements, apparel brands and cereals came to mind — Tiger Woods with his Nike swoosh or Nadia Comaneci on the back of a Wheaties box — but you didn’t think of pharmaceutical firms. That changed in 2000, when one of the pharmas saw a golden opportunity to align itself with one of the great sports heroes of the decade, cyclist Lance Armstrong.

All of the drugs that saved the biking superstar from dying of testicular cancer had pioneered at Bristol-Myers Squibb. “Armstrong is an inspiration for cancer survivors around the world,” says John F. Kouten. He was working at B-MS at the time, and he forged the first links between that company and Armstrong in 1999. Armstrong’s foundation partnered with B-MS to launch the first Cycle of Hope campaign the following year. In 2004 Kouten co-founded JFK Communications with David Avitabile. Now the company has expanded to a four-person office in Princeton Corporate Center at 5 Independence Way.

Kouten’s Armstrong connection is not on the top of his list of things to tell when he is being interviewed by a reporter, because he focuses on his own firm now. But if asked, he relates it with pride. After all, how many chances do you get, in a career, to connect your client with a true celebrity in a way that can help millions of patients suffering from a dreaded disease? “What we did at Bristol-Myers Squibb to work with Lance Armstrong helped cancer patients believe you don’t have to fear cancer,” says Kouten, “that you can have a source of inspiration. Even after his usefulness to Nike is over, Lance is still going to be an inspiration to cancer patients.”

Though Kouten no longer works for B-MS, his client base relates to his years there. They include oncology firms (such as Novartis Oncology) and patient support organizations (such as the Philadelphia-based Coalition of Cancer Cooperative Groups).

JFK Communications is helping the Coalition sign up volunteers for clinical trials and helped launch the QuickLink website (www.cancertrialshelp.org) that connects to 10 of the largest colorectal cancer trials. The company’s main role is to accelerate recruitment to large cancer clinical trials.

For Eisai, a Tokyo-based global pharmaceutical company, it landed a contract as the agency of record. It is helping Eisai bring cancer therapies, including a treatment for late-stage breast cancer, to market.

JFK Communications is expanding its reach to support a San Francisco-based company, Theravance, which is developing a fast-acting injectable antibiotic designed to treat highly resistant bacteria. And for Novartis’ global marketing group, it supports Zometa, a treatment to reduce the incidence of fractures in patients with metastatic bone disease.

Kouten, age 42, took a zigzag path to the healthcare communications field, though in retrospect it might seem preordained. He quotes his grandfather, a noted pharmaceutical chemist, who liked to say, “If you find yourself in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, or food, you will always be employable.”

Says Kouten: “When my father would be fighting with us, over the years, to find our niches in life, my grandfather would chime in, saying that these industries would protect you from a depression.” The grandfather, who was born in 1900, told tales of his teenage years, when he had a job sweeping the floors in a homeopathic pharmacy and filling large bottles with medicinal marijuana.

Kouten’s grandfather had another favorite saying, “Don’t take life too seriously — you’ll never get out of it alive.” A bohemian in spirit, he lived in Greenwich Village, earned his degree at Cooper Union, had two homes at the height of the Depression, and worked for Smith Pharmaceuticals. He was instrumental in helping the Food and Drug Administration develop good manufacturing procedures, and had numerous patents in ocular and dermatological medicine.

Kouten’s father was a military-trained orthopedic surgeon and his mother was an operating room nurse, and they had six children. “I grew up listening to the old debate — whether drugs or surgeons cured most people — but my mother would always win, saying that nurses are the real healers.”

Though he scored low on science and math, he was off the charts in verbal skills. “So I was able to find a productive way to apply my skills to healthcare.” He thinks the doctor/nurse at-home dialogue helped him to be sensitive to the needs of patients, yet help doctors understand new technologies.

It took him several years to find that career. Growing up in Colt’s Neck, among families wealthier than his, he cut loose from his family after high school. “The option was to go to college or go in the military, so I left home and worked in a French restaurant, the Fox and Hounds, and had a great time. Three chefs recommended me to the Culinary Institute. On the eve of going to that great school, I had a heart-to-heart with my father, and said, ‘Gee Dad, I don’t really want to go.’”

“My father said that if I could earn an associate’s degree from Brookdale Community College (I paid my own expenses) then he would stake me to the next two years.” His next stop: Rowan University, studying with Anthony J. Fulginiti. “In a backwater state college, they were at the forefront of the public relations industry, and they really turned me on.” He worked at the school newspaper, the magazine, the radio station, and in the college chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. “It was a magic time for me,” says Kouten. Among his mentors were Anne Sceia Klein of Anne Klein & Associates, the late Frank X. Long, and Richard Chamberlain of Chamberlain Healthcare Public Relations.

Graduating in 1989, at the age of 25 he worked at various Manhattan-based public relations agencies, then went to Bristol-Myers Squibb. He married his wife in 1994 and they have three school-aged children. He left B-MS to join Johnson & Johnson in 2002 and founded his own firm in 2004, along with Avitabile, a Long Island native who graduated from State University at Stony Brook in 1989. Avitabile set up the London office of ApotheCom, a global medical communications agency. Most recently he was senior vice president of global strategic development for ApotheCom’s parent company, Axis Healthcare Communications.

The company’s roster also includes Kouten’s wife, Sara Rosenberg Kouten, a Georgian Court graduate who is vice president of finance, and Jennifer Lawson, an account executive.

At the time Kouten left B-MS he was responsible for three therapeutic areas (oncology, HIV globally, and infectious diseases globally) and had three managers reporting to him. He was recruited by Johnson & Johnson to support its leading product, Procrit, for patients who are anemic due to chemotherapy or kidney failure.

Kouten says it is his work in oncology has given him the greatest job satisfaction. “My cancer-related and oncology-related work at Bristol-Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson defined my marketing career,” he says.

It was 1996 when Kouten contacted Armstrong’s agent, attorney Bill Stapleton. Armstrong was not a star then, but he had been diagnosed with and treated for testicular cancer. “We both agreed that Lance had a great story to tell,” says Kouten. That year he was being released from a French team, was being courted by the United States Postal Service Team, and was battling cancer. In 1998 Armstrong was picked up by the USPS team and competed in some races.

In 1999 Bristol-Myers Squibb sponsored Armstrong’s first Tour de France. Kouten was responsible for the contract, which involved signage on Armstrong’s jersey, support of the team, the right of first refusal to contract with him in 2000, four full days of Armstrong’s time for the creation and launch of a cancer awareness program, and the endorsement by and partnership with the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

In February, 2000, B-MS launched the Cycle of Hope website and campaign. It was a campaign to end the cycle of fear around cancer and to help raise awareness of clinical trials, says Kouten. “It created an opportunity for B-MS to partner with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and generate media awareness of why cancer is becoming less feared. Lance Armstrong represented hope — he beat cancer that spread to his brains and lungs.”

For Armstrong’s second Tour de France, Kouten and his wife brought a group of cancer survivors along on the trip. It was a varied bunch, and Kouten says his concerns over whether they would fit in with the rich and famous were unfounded. To a person, the celebrities were fascinated by the stories the survivors had to tell.

Meanwhile in 2001 Bristol-Myers Squibb launched another PR campaign featuring Armstrong. This one, a corporate image campaign, was called the Hope, Triumph, and the Miracle of Medicine. “It dwarfed the cancer communications campaign,” says Kouten, who did not work on it.

Kouten ran the Cycle of Hope campaign until his departure in 2002. (It has morphed into what is now called the Tour of Hope, with cancer survivors doing an annual cross country bike ride.)

“It is a privilege to do this kind of work,” says Kouten, “whether at Bristol-Myers Squibb or at my current company. If you go to a lab and talk to the scientists, they are there around the clock, trying to find a cure for a disease. More than 90 percent of their experiments wind up in nothing. I know selfless men who spent years at their bench and their work never resulted in a treatment for humans — yet they never felt they were failures. They felt privileged to tell the person next to them, don’t go down this path.”

JFK Communications, 5 Independence Way, Suite 300, Princeton 08540; 609-514-5117; fax, 609-452-8464. www.jfkhealth.com

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