“If you don’t put your health first and take measures towards preventative care, you can’t be there for others”, with Susan Manber

If you don’t put your health first and take measures towards preventative care, you can’t be there for others. I’m not a physician, but I can tell you that if you get something that can potentially be devastating, and if you pay attention and catch it early, your outcomes are going to be better than […]

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If you don’t put your health first and take measures towards preventative care, you can’t be there for others. I’m not a physician, but I can tell you that if you get something that can potentially be devastating, and if you pay attention and catch it early, your outcomes are going to be better than if you don’t address it. I’m living proof of that truth, but that doesn’t make putting myself first any easier — on the contrary, I think it’s really one of the hardest things, and I work on it every day. Putting yourself first isn’t selfish — it’s actually selfless.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Manber, Chief Strategy Officer, Digitas Health, a Publicis Health Company. Sue is an innovative and results-oriented brand strategist. She is exceptionally skilled when it comes to repositioning and launching companies, products and services. Sue is richly intuitive and takes a disciplined approach to distilling knowledge and turning complex problems into simple solutions that build brands and businesses.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I’m a native New Yorker born into a family of journalists where I grew up listening to my father, (a science writer) interview doctors about the latest advances in medicine. When I went to college, I became exposed to the emerging field of cognitive science and became fascinated with studying how and why people make decisions, a curiosity which led me to my first job in market research.

After cutting my teeth conducting global market research, I moved into the agency world, where I had the opportunity to eventually lead the planning department and work for clients across many industries, including BMW, Johnson & Johnson, and Aetna.

Advertising at the time had undoubtedly improved since Mad Men, but the industry was still male-dominated. In fact, I gave birth to my first child and my first planning department the same year! As the only woman on the senior leadership team, I looked up to the handful of other female leaders in my field. One of those leaders was Alexandra von Plato, now CEO of Publicis Health. At the time, Alex was Global Chief Creative Officer at Digitas Health and asked me to join her team and create the planning discipline of the future, an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.

During my tenure at Digitas Health, my professional life working on oncology brands abruptly collided with my personal life when I was diagnosed with Merkel cell cancer carcinoma — a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer with a 2% survival rate. I needed to receive treatment immediately, but there was so little information available, and it was challenging to know what questions to ask.

In the wake of my cancer journey, I’ve come back to work with a deeper purpose to give people the information they need to take control of their care. Today I’ve hit my five-year cancer-free mark, and I am fortunate that my work provides me with a platform to share my personal story. This summer, in partnership with the Skin Cancer Foundation, we launched The Big See, a nationwide PSA campaign promoting early detection of skin cancer — the most visible cancer, as well as the most common in the United States.

Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?

Sleep. Eat. Breathe.

When I started my career, I was a workaholic. I believed sleeping less than five hours a night was normal, but it wasn’t. I’ve since learned that when I sleep better, my work is better.

When it comes to eating, I was just like so many women after having kids — trying to lose that “last 10 pounds.” However, when I found the right endocrinologist, I understood what was right for me might look different from everyone else. Learning how to eat right for me and my body has made all the difference in my wellness.

Lastly — just breathe. I think it’s understated — whether it’s mindful meditation, or even using a great app like Headspace — how impactful attention to your body can be. Taking five minutes to close your eyes — to breathe in and out, and just to think — lowers your blood pressure and enables you to reset.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of my first significant oncology assignments was for the launch of a first-of-its-kind breakthrough cancer drug with the potential to save thousands of lives and change the way we think about cancer treatment.

It was during this time that my mother was diagnosed with inoperable stage 4 lung cancer. Suddenly, my professional and personal worlds world collided for the first time. Because of the oncology client I was working with at the time, I was able to help my family understand all the complexities of biomarker testing, tissue samples, and finding the right physician.

Ironically, the physician we found would become my oncologist after my cancer diagnosis the following year.

Being able to translate learnings at work into helping my family — and eventually myself — navigate the challenges of cancer treatment was truly invaluable.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was younger; it was not uncommon for me to put in 100+ hours a week. On the positive side, I was learning, growing, and always being exposed to new people and ideas. On the flip side, I barely had time to breathe — let alone think — and I was exhausted.

I’ll never know if that state contributed in any way to cancer diagnosis, but since then I’ve learned that I can be just as impactful with the quality of hours I work, rather than the quantity.

When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

After my cancer diagnosis, I remember going down the internet wormhole to find answers. I quickly discovered a sea of contradictions; everything gives you cancer, and everything cures it. This is reflective of the broader healthcare landscape today — we are inundated by information and misinformation, and it’s hard to know where to go, who to talk to, and what questions to ask. It can feel hopeless, and when you finally do see a physician, it can often feel you’re another cog in a machine.

Fortunately, that’s changing, and one of the things that brought me to Digitas Health was our purpose of helping, not selling. That has undoubtedly fueled our impact in the healthcare space — and it’s a provocative thought. We don’t for one minute mean it’s not about driving our client’s business, what we mean is that by arming patients with language and the right questions to ask their physicians, that people and the HCPs who care for them will make better, more confident decisions.

We want patients to understand the clinical terminology and treatment options, as well as the medication. We think of that as the total treatment effect — when people understand their care and find themselves at the center of it, they gain confidence and belief in it. It’s been shown that those with a positive mindset and are engaged with their care have better outcomes.

I hope that by being a patient advocate in my personal and professional life, I can empower others with the confidence they need to take control of their care. Because I genuinely believe patient engagement is the critical force that drives better outcomes and that healthcare marketing is healthcare.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people I’m grateful for; over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have parents, mentors, bosses, and colleagues who’ve spoken truth into my life.

However, I quite literally wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for my daughter Sarina. If Sarina hadn’t said, “mom, what’s that thing on your nose?” I wouldn’t have gone and gotten checked, and I wouldn’t be alive today. And throughout my cancer journey, she became my caregiver — taking me to appointments, changing IVs, and doing medicine runs. Most teenagers got to be teenagers, but Sarina was suddenly thrust into doing so much more than is asked of most people her age.

And, speaking of “women in wellness,” I couldn’t be more proud because now as a college student, Sarina won a coveted health and wellness internship, advocating for a rare women’s condition that often goes undiagnosed and unsupported. She’s also become an advocate for early detection and part of a nationwide effort to remove tanning beds on college campuses.

Most people don’t get to say their daughter saved their lives, but the reason I get to continue to do what I do every day is because of her. She really is my best friend.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

First and foremost, I’m a proud women’s advocate and supporter of #MeToo. If I could start a movement in health it would #MeFirst, because far too often — as women — we put ourselves last. We put the wants and needs of everyone else — our parents, children, spouses, colleagues, clients, and friends — above our own.

This has to stop. Especially when it comes to our wellbeing, saying #MeFirst isn’t selfish. How many times in the past have we canceled doctor’s appointments because something else has come up? There’s always going to be another deadline, another client, another issue, but you can’t cancel the things that are for yourself.

If you don’t put your health first and take measures towards preventative care, you can’t be there for others. I’m not a physician, but I can tell you that if you get something that can potentially be devastating, and if you pay attention and catch it early, your outcomes are going to be better than if you don’t address it. I’m living proof of that truth, but that doesn’t make putting myself first any easier — on the contrary, I think it’s really one of the hardest things, and I work on it every day. Putting yourself first isn’t selfish — it’s actually selfless.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

I always get asked why there’s a “Q” on the back of my phone case. It’s because I believe nothing is more powerful than a question. Take a step back and ask yourself how you did it, how you can make it better, and what questions need to be asked.

No one should be embarrassed to ask questions upfront because it saves time and headaches in the future.

2. Create boundaries.

It’s easy to let work consume your life, and for many years I let it consume mine. Create and communicate the boundaries you need to put yourself and your needs — physical, emotional, and spiritual first — your work will be better because of it.

3. Take time.

Building on the idea of boundaries, we live in a world of information (and misinformation) overload. This breakneck pace often means we don’t take the time to fully understand all the context and angles around what we are absorbing. I’ve found when I pause to process that more possibilities emerge for the problem we are trying to solve.

4. As a young professional, don’t ignore your instincts.

Absolute certainty is a hard thing to come by. If you have something that you’re confident in and it feels right to you, don’t be afraid to run with it. It’s not about your years of service; it’s about a great idea, and sometimes great ideas come from the most unexpected places.

5. Relationships are the key to selling breakthrough ideas.

People want to work with people they like and trust, so take the time to get to know your team and your clients. These relationships don’t have to be long-standing — they sometimes happen the day you first meet the client. However, regardless of length, the more you like the client, and the more camaraderie that’s on the team, the harder and smarter you will work. Never underestimate the power of relationships and chemistry with clients and colleagues.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health, and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Unquestionably mental health, for a host of reasons. When I was a child, my mother developed severe clinical depression, and I remember as a child going into her room where I’d see her collapse and start crying. This was before mainstream drugs came to the market, and when I think about her journey and the devastating impact depression had on her, mental health hits home for me. It was truly life-changing when she finally received the right medication that would enable her to live a fulfilling life.

One of the proudest moments of my career was receiving a letter from the CDC after the work we did to bring Abilify, a drug used to treat schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder, to the major depression market. We had conducted an exercise and asked people who were living with depression to draw and visually create what their depression felt like, and that was the driving force for creating what became an animated advertising campaign. The CDC thanked our team for portraying depression in a human way that wasn’t depressing.

It drove the client’s business tremendously, but even more importantly, it allowed people suffering from depression to express what they were feeling when they were not comfortable telling their doctor, “I’m still not awesome.” Our challenge is how do we get people to tell their doctor, “I’m still not completely there, I still need help.”

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Twitter: @SusanManber


Thank you for all of these great insights!

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