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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Talkin' 'bout an evolution

With the environment changing, there’s a need for creative agencies to take a long, hard look at how they will confront the challenges ahead? Like it or not, we’ve entered a new era

A casual glance at the diminishing role of advertising illustrates just how fundamental the analysis needs to be – what advertisements do, what they sell, and how they work.

Innovation has transformed the NHS over the last 20 years – through technology and ways of working. With PCTs needing to develop new commissioning strategies, it's set to intensify. The shift towards payment by results, for example, is a sure indicator that we are in an age where the NHS is patient-led. No longer is it treatment-driven, with 'big pharma' able to throw researched messages and sales tactics at it and expect to prosper. Neither is it provider-led where superior key opinion leader (KOL) development guarantees differentiation.

The demands on brands are taking new forms. An arm's length relationship between pharma and patient, delivered via diagnosis and prescription, is no longer valid. Instead, a patient-centric NHS is bringing new challenges that agencies need to adapt to.

To date, the pharma industry has predominantly focused on a company-to-healthcare professional (HCP) sales relationship. Other than the medication itself, there has been limited interaction between the company and patients.

Advertising agencies prospered by providing the requisite materials to enable the client to engage with their HCP targets. 

World domination required that agencies combine seductive creativity to win pitches, blended with service that never let the client down. But, as the environment has changed, so has the demand; begging the question, what is creativity looking like today? Is it:
• the power to execute the unexpected, in ever more attractive ways?
• the ability to depict previously undiscovered ideas that tap into the emotional sub-conscience of the unsuspecting target?
• or simply the ability to demonstrate 'balls-out bravery' in the eyes of the client?
The agency establishment continues to recognise and reward all of these. But as a client, is that all that you want? What does the healthcare marketplace now demand?

Shouldn't we be challenging the current paradigm, in order to engage with patients and to optimise their involvement to ensure a positive brand experience?

NHS policy has shifted care towards the community. In response, agencies must be able to create within high-technology niche markets, while overcoming the challenges of primary/secondary care integration. Otherwise, their efforts may be in vain.

The challenge for clients and agencies becomes apparent (as does the phenomenal financial waste by PCTs preoccupied with prescribing budgets and short-term goals).

What does patient power mean for advertising?
The single biggest dynamic today is the shift in power towards the patient. They're increasingly taking control of their own care. Furthermore, if their experience of a brand is felt to be 'inadequate' then there's every chance it will result in a treatment switch. Understanding and engaging with the patient, therefore, is pivotal in this evolving NHS environment.

Could healthcare brands benefit more from an agency that can truly combine healthcare and consumer capabilities and expertise?

Where's the potential?
The internet has had an enormous impact on the balance of power between the patient and the professional, offering communities and networks where expectations about health and the services provided can be explored and debated by patients and carers.
• Eight out of 10 consumers state they have looked for health information online in the last six months.

From an NHS perspective, it enables them to reach out and influence those who are not yet patients with resources that enable them to stay healthy, changing the way we look at promotion.
• One-third of patients ask their GPs about health issues they have discovered online.

For the prescriber, the internet facilitates access to information and education to ensure they can keep up to date, share insights and access a professional development resource on demand.
• over half of all western European physicians access eCME portals each week.

To be effective an agency needs to have the expertise to undertake successful acquisition, driving patients into the pharma client's marketing programmes and ensuring they are motivated to happily stay there. Their ideas need to be just as engaging for the care provider (potentially acting as a facilitation tool between the two). Wherever possible, the opportunity to data capture should be used.

It is worth noting that:
• currently, less than 10 per cent of consumers routinely use online disease management tools to monitor their condition daily, but 40 per cent say they would in future
• over 75 per cent of physicians surveyed (in both the EU and US) are interested in online tools for the patient and tools that link them directly with the patient's needs
• six out of 10 physicians would like to monitor patient health through interactive, online tools.

How well does your agency balance its off-line offerings with effective online delivery? Beyond simple websites and basic e-detail aids, how good is its understanding of digital communications?

Today's challenges demand that agencies re-evaluate their capabilities. In attempting to optimise patients' brand experiences, creative agencies will be expected to think smarter, have broader skills and ultimately be more accountable.

Just a question of time
The signs are there for all to see. Change is upon us. The only question that remains unclear is when the revised creative need will become the expected norm? Naturally, the answer lies in the hands of clients.

It's fair to say, that acknowledgement by clients of the new challenges today is variable. Some companies are beginning to truly embrace the potential. Others claim the ABPI Code is restricting and fail to show any meaningful shift in behaviour.

When clients do respond to all of the opportunities, their agencies may well find that the conventional structure they employ requires a rethink. Traditional-thinking agencies may be unable to cope effectively with the evolving requirements expected of creative partners.

As a result, we're already seeing agencies exploring innovative alternatives to the current and long-established model of account handling, creative department and the in-house studio. The brand experience will need to involve media planners, format creators, content producers, data directors and insight miners, in one sequential circuit, to optimise the changing dynamics in the market and the evolving relationship between pharma and consumer.

Agencies can adapt and prosper, or wait for others to lead the way. But where's the creativity in playing understudy? In the meantime, it's up to the innovators to blaze the trail. Just don't mistake innovation for reactive experimentation. The market demands are already here. Some clients and some agencies are simply reacting faster.

What is increasingly apparent is that many agencies are talking about innovation and the changing needs. But is this simply lip service, or is your agency truly seeing and preparing for the future environment today?

When all the talk is over, will you and your agency be left behind, or is your partnership future-proof?

Article by
Craig Mills

brand planning expert

14th September 2011

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