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New challenges in pharma marketing call for new approaches

Radical changes to an already competitive market mean clients are demanding a non-conformist approach to marketing to ‘unblock’ potential – enter the insurgent non-agency 

New challenges call for new approaches - ladders against a wallInsurgent non-agencies are appearing on the radar screen with heightened velocity. They're shaking the industry and grabbing well-deserved attention for their revolutionary thinking, fast-moving execution of competitive strategies, and hyper-aggressive marketing and communications tactics.

Med Ad News published its fifth annual selection of Pharmaceutical Marketing Ventures to Watch – those providing the most innovative and interesting products, services, or marketing opportunities to pharmaceutical companies and the healthcare community. The one common characteristic noted by the publication: '… they have found their way to the edge of the rapidly changing world of pharmaceutical marketing.' 

Our take on the common characteristic of companies that are delivering breakthrough marketing in the life sciences and healthcare industry: they're INSURGENTS!

Recognising an insurgent agency
It's easy. They think, plan and act like 'insurgents' in the classic sense of the term. First, they don't play by traditional rules. In today's fiercely competitive market, radical changes to antiquated rules are needed for brands to survive and thrive.

Second, insurgent agencies have three, unmistakable hallmarks:

Speed: They're nimble, agile and can shift direction as quickly as market dynamics demand.

Passion: They have a crystal clear vision of success, they believe in it and take great pride in the revolutionary thinking required to bring it to life.

Mobilisation: Assembling the right talent, and only the right talent, to get the job done.

Importantly, insurgent agencies aren't different for the sake of being different. They're responding to client demand for more choice, more change and more flexibility.

Clients are actively seeking out 'non-agencies' – the antithesis of the network model that blocks potential. Insurgent agencies are delivering on the 'non-agency' model in a way that's restoring the image of agencies to respected marketing partners.

Network agencies vs insurgents
Why have network agencies lost their advantage to insurgent non-agencies? The reasons are shamefully numerous, the most obvious of which is that network agencies are not even aware of the insurgent non-agencies rising up around them. Why? Simple: they're distracted. They are under tremendous pressure to revamp their rigid operating models as customers continue to intensify their demand for choice and change.

In fairness to the networks, they've been seeking solutions for years and for most the task is daunting. In many of today's big-name agencies, resource levels are at an all-time low – some networks have even been forced to consolidate agencies within their network in an effort to sustain profit margins. Limited resources tend to inhibit the type of innovation that is expected by all life sciences companies which, themselves, are facing a kind of competition they never faced before.

The most essential resource of any agency is, of course, its talent. Nowadays, network talent is being stretched to unfathomable levels, the fall-out of which is highly predictable and evident. Even when solid talent becomes task saturated, a metamorphosis occurs. Time constraints force individuals to become reactive only to basic necessities. This factor alone is often a tremendous source of de-motivated staff. After all, it is the desire of good talent to create BIG ideas, not simply recycle ideas, which is typically the outcome when teams are overworked.

In large part, network agencies lost their advantage because they began to focus on being a large agency, rather than the end product. Ironically, they all started out as INSURGENTS! Think about revolutionaries like Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy and Charles Saatchi, who created the legendary advertising icons DDB, Ogilvy and Mather, and Saatchi and Saatchi, respectively. Those 'brands' still loom large.

Interestingly, clients fall back on the logic: surely great marketing must come from great, brand-name agencies. But, again, agencies are the sum of their talent – nothing more. And if top talent can't be motivated and retained by the legendary advertising brand names, what happens next? The life cycle begins again. Top-talent individuals strike out on their own as insurgents. They mobilise like-minded, revolutionary thinkers who, together, are starting the new wave of agencies hitting the radar screen.

Tapping the power of insurgents
Most network agencies claim to be a one-stop-shop for all things marketing. In reality, they are more like a conductor of an orchestra composed of unfamiliar instruments. It's hard to coax out a beautiful symphony without proper understanding of the industry tools and what it takes to get the sound you want. In order to do this, they will hire smaller non-agencies but slow down the process with agency red tape and recycled creative thinking, negating any gain.

The first experience with an insurgent non-agency is usually a refreshing one for a client. Gone are the endless bureaucratic meetings, the needless layers of process and mid-level management. Direct access is granted to those who create and innovate. These creatives are exciting to watch because the environment is so much less restrictive than at a traditional agency. They stay passionate about their work and it shows in the final product.

In order to tap into the true power of these insurgent non-agencies, the clients must also be willing to change their approach. Many clients choose network agencies because they are 'safe' and are not an unknown entity. If there is a problem, it's not because the client-side account hired the wrong people, it's because the agency is falling down on the job.

The relationship between insurgent non-agency and client is redefined as a true collaboration between entities rather 'work for hire

The relationship between insurgent non-agency and client is redefined as a true collaboration between entities rather than a 'work for hire'. By the very nature of hiring an insurgent non-agency, the client is admitting out loud that the 'safe' approach does not yield the desired results.

Selecting the right insurgent non-agency
An insurgent non-agency specialises in strategy, digital design and video production. Its clients understand the benefits of the non-agency's strengths in relation to its current and future needs. The principals most commonly have network agency experience as well as client-side experience and know what works and what holds back creativity.

The experience of working on both sides of the fence is crucial to the understanding of where we were and where we are going as an industry. Working directly with a non-agency such as this will generate fresh ideas and take projects in new directions without the heavy-handed bureaucracy that has come to symbolise the big networks.   
It helps to think of an insurgent non-agency as more of a targeted treatment rather than a miracle pill. Insurgent non-agencies tend to have specialties and, therefore, are more proficient in the services they promote.

The current state of the industry requires the client to have two or three non-agencies rather than one agency that claims to do it all. Since this all happens under the hood at a network agency anyway, let's all be honest about it: working with multiple non-agencies creates a competitive environment where each is trying to better its talents in order to win a bigger piece of the business. With insurgent non-agencies constantly renewing themselves to stay fresh for their clients, the days of the comfortable and complacent network agency disappears.

Evaluating a network agency vs insurgent non-agency
Successful selection requires you asking the right questions. Here are a few to help lead the way:

  • Who exactly created those marketing strategies and creative concepts used at the pitch?
    For example, be on the look out for indications that non-affiliated, outsourced talent may have been used to generate the actual ideas – a common practice in under-resourced network agencies

  • Does the chemistry between your team and the agency team feel right?
    Don't judge by on-stage pitch performance alone. Remember, all agency pitch members are extensively – and often professionally coached – on projecting just the right image to connect with the audience (you). Here's an idea: bring your team together with the potential agency team on neutral turf for an informal, get-to-know-each other outing with an active, fun, mission-oriented theme. These kinds of events allow deeper insights to shine through on individuals' personalities, their approach to problem solving and partnership qualities

  • What is their view of the big picture and how it's changing (ie, our industry as well as sectors beyond)?
    What's their practical view of what that means to your organisation and brand today and tomorrow? Are they distinguishing true trends from short-lived fads? It's okay to test them as futurists. After all, the future is rushing at us at light speed like never before. Those who aren't constantly anticipating change are in a weak position to seize change as an opportunity in real time

  • What is their experience outside of your current industry?
    It helps if your desired insurgent is heavily involved in other industries. Such experience will bring a fresh perspective to overused and tired techniques. Of course it is a requirement that they are seasoned professionals in the industry, working within the limitations and guidelines the industry dictates. However, it is surprising what can be accomplished within those restrictions if creative direction from peripheral industries is brought to the table from peripheral industries. For example, Flux Life Media started life as a spin-off of Merge Creative Media, which specialises in film and broadcast network production and special effects. The expertise and resources used to wow HBO, NBC and Hollywood are now applied to the life sciences and health and wellness industry. It is this type of unique perspective that will give a brand the edge it so desires


Go on, give one a try
Still not sure if an insurgent non-agency is a right fit for you and your brand? Why not include one the next time you put your business up for pitch? Or, better yet, allow it to prove itself on a special project. Test it, go ahead! One thing is for sure; insurgent agencies are succeeding – taking life sciences and health and wellness companies to new marketing frontiers. Isn't it time for your brand to shake the industry with transformational change?


Jeremy Evans, Flux Life MediaDonna Vetter, Flux Life Media
The Authors
Jeremy Evans
and Donna Vetter, Flux Life Media

28th August 2012

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