Steven Michaelson
Inducted 2024
When Steven Michaelson was chairman of the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame, he often had the privilege of informing nominees that they had cleared the hall’s high bar for induction. So when his phone rang with the same news in late October, he felt a little déjà vu and plenty of pride. He does not, alas, remember much else. “I was sick,” he says with a laugh. “I missed the moment.” That moment was hard-earned. Born in Newark, Michaelson’s childhood in Parsippany, New Jersey, was colored by what he now realizes was an undiagnosed learning disability. “I had dyslexia and ADD. In high school, I could barely read,” he says. What Michaelson could do, however, was draw. He believes the combination of his talent and his learning disability made a career in the creative world something of an inevitability. “They treated me like the star quarterback. ‘Oh, he’s great at art, let’s push him through school.’” Michaelson enrolled at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, where he studied advertising – and encountered his first critic. “The instructor came over to me and said, ‘You might want to think about trying another major.’” Michaelson’s response: You think I can’t do it? Well, I’ll show you. After receiving his certificate in advertising design, Michaels transferred to Pratt Institute, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. His primary aim was to work as a painter and illustrator, and he had some success selling his artwork. To bolster his income, he took a job at a generalist agency. “I thought my advertising would pay for my painting, but advertising and communications design started to take up my whole being,” Michaelson recalls. Before long, Michaelson had established himself in pharmaceutical advertising, with posts of increasing responsibility at KPR, FCB, Harrison and Star and Robert A. Becker. He founded Wishbone in 1998. The company’s first project: Designing a “not for resale” sticker for Novartis. “I did around 20 layouts for that tiny little sticker,” he says. Within six months, Michaelson had more Novartis work than he knew what to do with. A visit to Novartis’ offices illuminated the path forward: “The person at the desk said, ‘The agency’s here.’ I thought, ‘I’m the agency?’” The missing piece of the puzzle was strategy, but Michaelson knew where to find a top candidate: Across the dinner table. At the time, his wife, Judy Capano, was a McCann EVP celebrated for her strategic chops. Together, they grew Wishbone into a $15 million firm and, in 2010, sold it to Rosetta Marketing Group. When Publicis acquired Rosetta a year later, it eliminated the Wishbone brand name. Michaelson and Capano departed soon thereafter. “I wish I would have left my people in better hands,” he explains. That emotional response surprised nobody. “One thing that isn’t in dispute is the size of Steven’s heart,” wrote IPG Health group president Renee Mellas in a letter supporting his MAHF nomination. Retirement didn’t suit him. Calcium was born in 2012, and the build-up process commenced anew. “I started with ‘we’ll show them!’ I asked people if they could cut me off a piece. But there weren’t any pieces to cut off.” Michaelson sold Calcium in 2014 to Star Group, which paired Calcium with Vox Medica and its own healthcare arm, Star Life Sciences. In theory, the merger made sense. In practice… “Great idea, awful execution,” Michaelson says. When Star Group imploded in 2015, Michaelson and Capano bought the organization in a bankruptcy sale. By 2021, Calcium, now a $50 million agency, sold itself to private equity firm NexPhase Capital. Before retiring in March, Michaelson helped engineer the creation of the Calcium + Company mini-network. Given his entrepreneurial bent, several of Michaelson’s peers believe this retirement will last as long as his previous one. He’s quick to dismiss such speculation. “I know how to do this business and I’m really good at it, but I’ve been white-knuckling it with my learning disability all this time,” he says. As for his legacy, Michaelson hopes to be remembered for doing right by his people and for the business writ large. But he’d also like his successes to serve as evidence that good guys don’t finish last. “I’ve been blessed with a little bit of talent, but really – I’m a kid with learning disabilities from Newark. How the hell did I end up here?” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate.”