From the very beginning, agency leadership knew that Theranos was no normal client and Elizabeth Holmes wasn’t an ordinary executive.
This mysterious entrant to the startup scene had already begun to cause a stir years before fame and controversy turned her into both a pariah and an object of obsession.
“When she told us about the product, it sounded phenomenal,” said Stan Fiorito, former managing director at TBWAChiatDay Los Angeles. “We didn’t see it, but we were really excited about it.” Fiorito served as account lead on the Theranos business and, later, a key source for Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s work that led to the company’s dissolution.
The product in question was a tiny “Nanotainer” unit that would allegedly perform all standard blood tests using a single drop of blood as part of a far larger “Edison box” processing unit.
Agency and client first connected by way of a venture capital firm called Sandbox Industries, which brokered a 2012 meeting between Holmes, her brother Christian and Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani as well as Fiorito, TBWA L.A. president Carisa Bianchi and creative leader Lee Clow, who served as the key connection due to his legendary work for another tech startup based in Cupertino, Calif.
“We’re the Apple agency, and she wanted to emulate Steve Jobs,” said Fiorito. “That’s why our involvement becomes interesting.”
In that initial meeting, Fiorito said Holmes spoke of a desire to follow the famously “intimate” relationship between TBWA and Apple while making grandiose claims about the Edison box’s active deployment among troops on the ground in Afghanistan. The team didn’t question these statements, in part because the company boasted a board led by such heavyweights as former secretary of state George Shultz and a mission filled with inspiring sentiments like those voiced by the now-former employees in this clip.
“You kind of had to take Elizabeth’s word for it,” said Mike Peditto, who was an account director at the time.
And they did. But none of it was true.
Theranos—once valued at approximately $10 billion—is no more. Onetime wunderkind Holmes and Balwani, her former partner in business and domestic affairs, stand charged with nine federal counts of wire fraud and conspiracy. And the world remains captivated by her tale of deceit, which inspired Carreyrou’s bestseller, Bad Blood, as well as the ABC podcast The Dropout, HBO documentary The Inventor and a forthcoming feature film starring Jennifer Lawrence.
In many ways, this is a tale of marketing gone wrong.
The early months
That first meeting preceded an entire year of unexplained radio silence. Negotiations only began when the company reached out to TBWA again in 2013 and said they were “ready to turn things on,” with the agency going to work in “stealth mode” under code name Stanford. No one outside that team knew the nature of the client or the project, which initially focused on developing a Theranos website, logo and messaging surrounding its nascent Walgreens partnership.
Clow, who had already begun moving toward retirement, assigned lead creative duties to Patrick O’Neill, an ecd who played key roles on Visa and other large accounts and would eventually become Theranos’ in-house chief creative officer in early 2014.
“Our first meeting was about the mission of the company: to create affordable, accessible diagnostic blood testing for people everywhere,” O’Neill told Adweek. As he put it in a later story regarding his move in-house, he was excited about shifting from “getting people to buy products they may not need” to “promoting something that everyone needs.”
In the early days, Fiorito said Holmes lacked the professional polish that would later define her persona and often “looked a little like she just rolled out of bed.” He said she sounded “like a robot” in most settings but recalled one specific incident in which she presented the agency team with “a lunch bag of knit finger puppets” she wanted to give to children who’d just gotten their fingers pricked. According to the executive, her famously deep voice “got a little higher” in that unrehearsed moment.