JWT Gets Into Medical Innovation by Helping to Develop the Fin, an Amphibious Prosthetic Leg

A tale of hope and renewal from Northwell Health

Here’s the story of an ad agency, a healthcare company and a wounded Marine pooling their efforts to help make injured people whole again in an unexpected way.

It centers on Dan Lasko, who lost his left leg in 2004 while serving in Afghanistan.

Now, Dan loves recreational and competitive swimming, and from the start he refused to let his injury slow him down. He’s competed in 30 triathlons since returning from combat, but there was one persistent frustration: Dan couldn’t seamlessly move between land and water using a traditional prosthetic leg.

It’s a problem shared by many people who lose limbs, and often it can keep them out of the water and severely dampen their spirits.

But the Fin, an amphibious leg developed by Northwell Health and J. Walter Thompson New York—with Lasko serving as consultant and pitchman—could change all that:

“We were asked to promote Northwell’s veterans’ services and communicate its promise to raise the standard of healthcare through innovation,” Ben James, executive creative director at JWT, tells Adweek. “We said, let’s create a prosthetic that gets a veteran back to something they want to do, to return to something active in life. To ‘return’ meant it needed to go further than the physical. It would encompass the emotional side.”

The agency quickly identified an underserved market. “There isn’t any sort of amphibious leg prosthetic that allows a wearer to embrace a more natural swim—[combining] land and aquatic activities—so we set out to change that,” James says.

Once Northwell greenlighted the project, the team searched for a veteran to help guide the Fin’s development and star in a promotional campaign.

That process turned into equal parts casting call and test-pilot recruitment.

“We went in hoping to find someone looking to get back to the water. Someone who would want to be so active it challenged us,” James says. “In interviews, Dan talked about doing triathlons, but also swimming with his kids [sons Luke and Ben, ages 6 and 2]. Keeping up with the kids is maybe the tougher challenge!”

With Lasko’s input, the team produced a 3-D-printed prototype they believe goes well beyond what previous amphibious limbs have to offer.

“The Fin has specially engineered holes at the edges that provide the right amount of drag, but allow for propulsion that gets closer to a natural swim,” James says. “It’s not a paddle or a flipper. The bottom has a bit of grip for pool edges.”

It took five months from the Fin’s inception to Lasko’s first test swim in a Long Island public pool. After some design tweaks, the high-tech limb performed—well, swimmingly. Lasko was able to glide smoothly through the water, and execute exuberant cannonballs from the diving board, with equal ease.

But according to the former Marine, it’s not all about him.

“These kids love the water,” he says of his sons in “The Return,” a short documentary dropping today, “and as a dad, I don’t want to do anything to hold these guys back.”

Along with the film, JWT also launched a digital content hub, social posts and PR support.

“So often, we are given an innovation or product to market, [but] in this case, we were at the table from ideation to execution,” says Northwell CMO Ramon Soto. “It gives you a different perspective to tell the story, to document success, to consider setbacks and to push the team. It is powerful at its core, and we will do more activations like this.”

What’s more, in a world where agency services have become increasingly commoditized, the collaborative nature of the project allowed Northwell and JWT to form a tight bond.

“This is the first time we brought in an outside partner to ideate new innovations and vet the system for capabilities,” says Soto. “They are partners in our business, thought leadership, change management and engagement.”

James adds, “We are proud of this as a feature of what can happen in a true, trusted collaboration. Our goal is to make the Fin available to any and all amputees. This is a real product, real-world tested.”

And rather than submerse viewers in sentimentality, JWT tells the Fin’s creation story in simple, direct terms, with a refreshing lack of hyperbole. Lasko’s likable presence lends immense credibility, allowing a relatable tale of hope and renewal to surface.

“While this is specifically a veterans’ innovation story, it is also a metaphor for how we think about change as a system,” says Soto, “and we want consumers to understand and experience that change.”

Client: Northwell Health
Ramon Soto, Chief Marketing Officer
Don Simon, Vice President, Marketing
Jennifer Nelson, Senior Director Advertising
Katie Irizarry, Advertising Manager
Agency: J. Walter Thompson New York
Chief Creative Officer: Brent Choi
Executive Creative Director: Ben James
Creative Director: Karl Ackermann, Sean Ellman, Itai Inselberg
Creative: Bob Broadfoot, Rob Colucci
Business Director: John Danbeck
Account Director: Javier Bracero
Account Manager: Vincent Falcetano
Account Associate: Charlotte Deavers
Strategist: Marina Pen, Marta LaRock, Chan Ruanglek
Director of Digital: Jennifer Usdan McBride
Director of Technology: Kamran Aslam
Associate Director of Technology: Juan Turcios
Digital producer: Angela O’Neill
Senior Technical Lead: William Mincy
QA Manager: Sujay Debsikdar
Project manager: Christine Fiorentino
Prod Co: J. Walter Thompson New York
Head of production: Anthony Nelson
Director/Producer: Tom Mishra
Underwater Cinematographer: Ahad Mahmood
Editorial: Yacht Club Films (Henry Hayes, Matt Morgan, Zach Law)
Music: Duotone Audio Group
Audio: Duotone Audio Group
Audio Mastering: Bongiovi DPS Technology
Color: CO3
Media: Metavision Media

@DaveGian davegia@hotmail.com David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.