It says a lot about a company when it finds itself hiring employees and moving into a bigger space in this economy. But that’s exactly what Taft and Partners has done.

The advertising, marketing, and pharmaceutical consulting agency moved to its new location at 2000 Lenox Drive in Lawrenceville on January 17. The new space is about 4,500 square feet, up from 1,500 square feet at its old Palmer Square location. “It wasn’t magic and it took a lot of hard work,” says Mara Connolly, who co-founded the firm with her husband, Pete Taft. “We contemplated, debated, consulted our oracles. We also ended up being incredibly lucky to attract a high degree of talent.”

The Tafts’ enterprise, notes Connolly, has moved from a mom and pop consultancy — known in the 1980s for its marketing and communications work for nonprofits — into a caterpillar and now a butterfly. Make that two butterflies: Taft and Partners, the marketing and communications firm, and PharmApprove, which works with drug, biologic, and device companies to guide them through the FDA’s approval processes.

Connolly says in the first two months of 2012, PharmApprove is working on half of the upcoming product approval meetings listed on FDA Live. “That,” she says, “is an incredible statistic for a small company like ours.”

Leading the charge on the communications side is Chris Cavanaugh, Taft and Partners’ president, who says the company has also increased its staff by about 25 percent over the past year, though Taft’s staff remains lean, with about 25 fulltime, part-time, and contract employees.

Cavanaugh says the growth that led to the expansion has been building slowly and steadily, and is a result of how clients have responded to the company’s two divisions — PharmApprove and Taft.

PharmApprove specializes in “drug development communications,” says Cavanaugh. “Our team offers consulting communications to get those companies ready to present their findings in front of FDA advisory committees. So it’s a very specialized business. It’s a communications consulting business, and it works for the pharmaceutical biological device companies, specifically around communications involving approval.”

Cavanaugh says PharmApprove is a leader in its sector. “It’s a fascinating niche communications consultancy and it’s been growing very rapidly year over year, especially in the last four to five years.” Because of confidentially agreements, he says PharmApprove does not share the names of its clients.

The other division, Taft, is described by Cavanaugh as a “multi-disciplinary communications and advertising agency.”

“That means we do everything from traditional advertising — television, radio, print — and a lot of online website development, banner ads, public relations, and communications. We also do a lot of internal communications for Fortune 500 companies in communicating to their worldwide constituents, their sales teams. So we’re sort of a multi-disciplinary communications and advertising agency.”

Cavanaugh describes Taft as a local business that works with regional and international clients. Recently, Taft was hired by Capital Health as it opened its new hospital in Hopewell. Capital Health has an internal communications team, which Taft team members worked with on advertising and marketing leading up to the hospital’s opening.

Taft also works with national clients, such as Abbott Laboratories in Chicago, which Cavanaugh says is a big client.

“We do a lot of work with a couple of their key divisions in helping them develop communications for their internal, global network of companies,” Cavanaugh says. “It’s interesting that we have Fortune 100 companies, big global organizations that we do a lot of communications for, and at the same time we have regional advertising, marketing, and public relations clients, such as Capital Health. We’re sort of regional and global at the same time.”

Other clients include Splenda, Nutella, Max Factor, Clairol, Lockheed Martin, Curiosity Kits, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A typical Taft relationship, Cavanaugh says, involves employees working with a division director at a company on communication needs, both national and international, with employees and peers throughout the world.

“Our stock and trade is developing good relationships with the senior leaders within these organizations and then we slowly over time become their go-to people for communications. We work on a project, we do well, and they invite us in to think further for them,” he says. “We start with a strategy but we also do execution. Ultimately we can work with their internal folks. I think clients like that we have a very flexible model, there’s not just one way we do business.”

Cavanaugh says the company’s success, particularly during the harsh economy, is due to the co-founders — CEO Taft and the executive VP and strategic director Connolly. (On the company’s website, Taft is called the “cheerleading captain” and Connolly is called “the visionary.”)

Cavanaugh says that while a lot of people say companies should invest when an economy hits a downturn, few have the wherewithal to actually do that, but Taft and Connolly did. As a privately held company, Taft and Partners does not release revenue and expenditure information, but Cavanaugh says the approach led to steady growth in revenues, and to tangible growth in the form of the new offices.

“Much to Pete’s credit and Mara’s credit, what they did was they invested during the downturn in the company in bringing in new leadership to take both divisions of the company to the next logical level,” he says. “And it’s paying off, they bit the bullet, they showed bravery and conviction.”

The Tafts met in New York and settled in Princeton in 1983. Taft, a 1973 Dickinson College alumnus, worked as a photographer and reporter and met his future wife, the daughter of a probation officer who grew up in Port Chester, New York, and graduated in 1971 from Smith College, while she was working as a VP and creative director at Foote, Cone, Belding in New York. In Princeton the two pursued their separate freelance interests and also worked together on marketing efforts for area nonprofits, including what was then called the MSM Regional Planning Council (more recently renamed — with the Tafts’ help — as PlanSmart NJ).

Connolly remained active in marketing, helping J&J develop its Splenda brand, for example. Taft’s communications work took him to Trenton, where he worked as the PR coordinator for the state Department of Labor during the Florio administration, and then back to New York, where he worked in exhibits and event planning.

But after 9/11 the Tafts consolidated their operations back in Princeton, opening a small office at 1 Palmer Square (and also raising their daughter, who now works at the Arctic Museum at her alma mater, Bowdoin College). “We re-thought our business,” says Connolly. “We needed to know how the big guys did it.”

That thinking led to the creation of the PharmApprove division in 2006 and the hiring last year of the division’s president, Laurie Smaldone, an M.D. and oncologist who spent 20 years in clinical development at Bristol-Myers Squibb (U.S. 1, November 9, 2011).

Cavanaugh, who joined Taft three years ago and is now president of the marketing side of the firm, grew up on Long Island, where his father worked for the phone company and his mother was a homemaker. He graduated from Elizabeth College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1984 with a degree in communications and worked in Manhattan for 15 years.

He was an executive vice president at Jack Morton Worldwide (where he ran in to Pete Taft), and before that worked in television and commercial production for independent producers and worked on series for Showtime and Henson Productions.

Cavanaugh cites the two divisions of Taft and Partners as a key to the growth. “It’s a diverse company with two divisions, so Pete and Mara created a sort of balanced portfolio of businesses, so that if one is slightly down, the other is up,” he says. “It’s like having a good balanced portfolio in your 401(k), it’s a strategy that seems to have worked for them.”

Another key element, he says, is helping clients navigate their way through the ever-changing ways that people receive information.

“We’re bringing our clients new ways of marketing based on evolving technology and channels,” he says. “For a number of our clients, we’re developing their social media strategy, helping them figure out how to integrate social media into their traditional marketing and advertising strategy and what that really means and what’s changing.

The pace of change in that particular category, in digital, is happening so quickly, there are things every day that we’re bringing to our clients. There are certain things you want to stay away from until they evolve and other things where you need to leap in on the leading edge and bring your clients with you.”

Also important is helping clients spend their marketing dollars wisely. “I think the name of the game is smart investments, but no one has money to burn, no one has money to waste, so it’s even more important than ever before,” he says. A big part of that is what emerging media can generate the best return, based on the audience a client wants to reach. For example, a company may collect data through a website but then not know what to do with it.

“Sometimes the information just sort of sits there or it doesn’t get optimized on the back end,” he says. “And how does marketing integrate with sales, and how do you take the data and translate that into leads, and how do you make sure you have a system in place to follow up on leads in a way that makes the media spend worthwhile?”

When asked what the key to maintaining good client relationships is, Cavanaugh says that clients mention how Taft and Partners listen to them and is flexible.

“With all the demands that are going on within our client organizations, a partner that listens, that delivers something back that you ask for, that’s 90 percent finished when you get it back and it saves you time, and that can turn around ideas that are strategic and smart and that can be executed quickly — that’s the winning combination. If you can get that right, they really seem to value that.”

Taft and Partners/PharmApprove, 2000 Lenox Drive, Suite 200, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-683-0700; fax, 609-683-8011. Pete Taft, president.

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