Dr. James Barnum, a collateral descendant of the showman P. T. Barnum, was born in Indianapolis and grew up in Lakeland, Fla. He was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, commanded a task group in the Pacific in World War II and rose to the rank of Rear Admiral in the Naval Reserve.
Dr. Barnum was a marketing man turned physician, receiving a medical degree from Columbia University in 1964. After a successful 10-year career at J. Walter Thompson Company, where he rose to group executive vice president and president of J.W.T. Affiliated Companies, Dr. Barnum founded Barnum Communications in 1975. Under his guidance, the firm became a top 10 healthcare advertising agency.
Dr. Barnum was an innovator who recognized many trends and concepts ahead of others, and led the way on several fronts in medical advertising, including the use of public relations, direct-to-consumer communication of information, and opportunities for women at senior levels.
At the time, Barnum Communications was a bit unusual in the field since it also did consumer communications and advertising of consumer healthcare brands. Dr. Barnum, who remarked that ”healthcare is healthcare, no matter who the advertising is directed at,” was a pioneer in using television to promote healthcare, and was brave enough to bring conditions where people suffered in silence to the forefront, as demonstrated by the commercials he produced that promoted private mental hospitals in the Sun Belt.
Dr. Barnum was dedicated to total communications and was a visionary leader. Barnum Communications became the first healthcare agency to incorporate a public relations arm, a service that became the wave of the future in pharmaceutical marketing. He knew that public relations was just as important as the advertising of prescription drugs, because it was, at that time, the only way that a manufacturer could go directly to the consumer. He pioneered this area of healthcare communications because he realized that if a manufacturer had a promotable product, it might be able to get a news article or a feature spot on a broadcast talk show that could lead to a consumer asking the physician to prescribe that particular brand-name product.
While his accomplishments were many and varied, perhaps Dr. Barnum’s biggest impact on our industry was his decision was to hire the first woman to run a major agency. Dorothy Philips, another Medical Advertising Hall of Famer, gave Jim a pillow carrying the message ”The best man for the job often is a woman” just before he hired her. The pillow remained nestled in the corner of his office couch throughout his career and, judging from his decision to promote Philips to president and chief operating officer of Barnum Communications, he took the message to heart. Dorothy Phillips was the first woman to make it that far in a major agency in healthcare and paved the way for many more women to follow.
In addition to a successful career, Dr. Barnum’s other passion was his devoted wife, Barbara, two daughters, Elizabeth, and Shauna, a son, David, and four grandchildren. Tragically, he passed away much too soon from cancer, he was 68 years old and lived in Manhattan.