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Bucking the trend

Max Jackson's perspective on going against the norm of integration

Bucking the trendGlobalisation, consolidation, integration – where does it all end? From often the smallest of beginnings, the tidal wave of healthcare agencies offering the full gamut of consulting and communication services seems to roll ever onwards. But is this really progress or are we running the risk of becoming giant global entities that swallow up the specialisms that clients really want? In particular, can medical education survive and thrive as a stand-alone division in the midst of the integration trend, at a time when the needs of the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in Europe, have never been greater?

Certainly, as president of S&H EMEA, I can hardly accuse our competitors of being the only ones to harness opportunities to operate within a global network. Formed in the 1940s by Art Sudler and Matt Hennessey as the first specialist healthcare agency – and with creative forces such as Andy Warhol as past employees – S&H has pioneered many changes over the years. With our first European offices opening in the early 1970s, we were the first agency to build the beginnings of a truly global network and have enjoyed continual worldwide growth ever since.

Indeed, as one of the pioneers of direct to consumer (DTC) advertising and a major force behind one of the pivotal ad campaigns of the last century (Dove), S&H has always tried to swim with the current, if not ahead of the wave. As part of this, we formed the first of our full-service medical education companies – IntraMed – in 1974 and have remained totally committed to being our clients' education partner ever since, alongside providing a full range of strategic, consultancy and communications support.

Given all of this, you might think it strange that S&H London is choosing to buck the general trend that has been typical of global healthcare communications and launch a stand-alone medical education division. Perhaps it is easiest to explain our rationale by looking at why integration has become such a dominant force and why we believe that medical education can prosper outside of what has become the normal and accepted framework offered by our competitors.

Is bigger better?
From many viewpoints, the ongoing integration of specialist divisions under umbrella agencies clearly makes good business and commercial sense. After all, when we are all looking for more bang for our buck – particularly from a global procurement perspective – the more any agency can deliver as a one-stop-shop, the better. Clients mostly look for agencies that can provide creative solutions across the spectrum of communications and few can question the levels of success enjoyed by the big global healthcare agencies – including S&H – in recent years.

But this, of course, begs the questions: how and why is medical education different? Surely it requires the same skillset, talent and resources that other agency support provides? Isn't it, therefore, more cost-effective simply to bolt it on as a further offering?

The answer to the latter question seems to be 'yes' for most healthcare communications agencies. S&H London, however, thinks differently and is forging a path that, for some, may seem to be reversing every trend of late. We believe it makes sound business sense to separate out a division that primarily devises and implements educational programmes for healthcare professionals, patients and internal audiences at a time when client budgets, however small or large, simply have to deliver to the max.

We also know that clients are looking for agencies that can give them much more than just straight promotion. Long gone are the days when this approach alone would suffice. In our view, many advertising agencies that claim to be able to do medical education simply haven't delivered, largely because they have underestimated the combination of skills, knowledge and creativity that medical education requires. We, therefore, decided to launch a stand-alone division that is expert in its own right, yet with the capability to draw on wider resources within the S&H network, when necessary.

Stand-alone but connected
When we say 'stand-alone', we mean just that. We have a dedicated team of in-house professionals comprising writing, design and digital expertise, as well as people from a variety of healthcare (industry, agency and clinical) backgrounds who really understand what will work for the audience in question. Most of our people have handled multiple product launches and marketing strategies throughout their careers and have learned ideas and approaches that can be applied across different therapy areas. So, from a patient workshop to clinician e-learning, strategy planning to branding activities and much more, we can bring our clients closer to their key audiences and retain long-term relationships using impactful and creative delivery.

While our medical education team is very much a separate entity, it still has access to the resources and experts that S&H London and the broader network provides. After all, there would be little point in denying one team the benefits, talents and insights that the other offers. There is, therefore, a pool of different skills for the medical education team to draw on, if necessary, but – from pitch to final delivery – any project is handled solely by them.

We believe that this approach benefits our clients in a number of ways. Medical education practitioners may share many skills with other professionals in a healthcare communications agency, but they also ideally need a background that blends commercial savvy with an understanding of what will resonate with healthcare professionals and how to reach them. This, combined with a sound knowledge of the full range of educational tools, makes an ideal skillset for helping clients to reach and, hopefully exceed, their goals.

Not just another offering
The basis of our thinking is that we want to create a centre of medical education excellence – and we do not think that such an entity can sit completely within the broad scope of a fully integrated healthcare communications agency if it is to thrive and develop.

Medical education is not just another division that can be bolted on to the list of offerings on a homepage. Many larger agencies 'muddy the waters' by not making the distinctions between it and other disciplines clear, with the end result that the client can end up working with a team that ultimately can disappoint and not deliver.

In short, and although it may appear as if we are swimming against the tide, we think that in order for the true value of medical education to be recognised and understood, it needs to benefit from a stand-alone approach.

And what do clients think of our decision? They understand our thinking and recognise the value of a specialist division that can draw on a wider pool of global resources when necessary. Rather than getting swallowed up or overshadowed by other teams within the agency structure, our medical education team has the pedigree and desire to forge ahead and build its own future.

Looking ahead
There is a real need for medical education in Europe that provides credible and relevant information to professional audiences, especially as the traditional channels for clinician information and education (the rep and rep sponsored meetings) are becoming less important. Looking ahead, medical education agencies will continue to have a clear role to play in developing successful market access strategies and facilitating effective relationships between pharma and its customers.

At the same time, there is little doubt that medical education as it has existed in the US for the past 30 or so years is undergoing fundamental change. In particular, CME will have to show a more demonstrable impact on healthcare outcomes than before. This is a significant move away from discrete one-off modules or meetings, but it also represents a huge opportunity for agencies that can raise the bar and meet the challenge of devising CME models that provide long-term value.

Closer to home, we believe that the future for medical education in Europe is bright. 

Max Jackson
The Author
Max Jackson recently joined Sudler & Hennessey (S&H) as president of its offices across the EMEA region. Max has worked in healthcare communications for 18 years and has client sales, marketing, advertising, medical education, strategic planning and extensive global marketing experience. The last eight years were spent leading large healthcare communications networks globally and, in the last two years, he has focused on developing new business models to service clients both in the digital/new media arena and in new regions.

To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

3rd February 2010

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