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Smart Thinking blog

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

The Empowered Patient and the Pharma Brand

With so much evolving in how healthcare is delivered, what are the implications for the pharma marketer? For a start, if you haven’t already, put away those Magic Markers…

Twenty years. 7,305 days. 631,152,000 seconds. Whichever way you look at it, that's a long time in the context of our industry. And yet somehow, it feels so short. Can it really be two whole decades since the first LEC ad (below) hit The Directory? Well gather round younglings, because Auntie Kim is going to tell you all about how things have changed since the olden – some would say golden – days. 

So what's altered the most? First off, for me, has to be our audience. Its ability to choose which drugs to prescribe; our ability to reach and engage with it; the time it has for sales calls (if it even takes sales calls). Availability to reps has declined, as has the number of reps. We've had to drastically rethink the way we engage with our audiences – but that's what makes our jobs so exciting.

The audience itself has changed. Where we used to focus almost entirely on general practice and secondary care specialists, we've had to broaden our approach radically. With the advent of procurement, the PCT, payer and patient power, and many other things beginning with P, our strategic and tactical plans have had to adapt accordingly.

The World Wide Web Arrives

A mere 12 months before the launch of The Directory, on August 6, 1991, a little-known computer scientist built, and put online, the world's first website. From that day on the world changed, and the way people communicate and find answers to their questions changed along with it.

No longer do patients have to wait until they see their GP to find out what that pain might be or what those symptoms could mean: 20 seconds on Google and they are presented with a bewildering amount of data, information and opinion. This ready access to information has forged the new way in which healthcare communicates and sells itself.

This empowering of patients has meant that the healthcare profession and drug companies have to offer support beyond the drug itself, and GPs now expect manufacturers to manage this online universe in a way that helps them deal with patient compliance, patients' concerns about their treatment and the long-term benefits of the treatments themselves.

The digital age has also changed the way pharma communicates; the glossy double-page ad produced by a creative duo in a smoke-filled room is long gone, replaced by wafer-thin Star Trek-inspired devices from Cupertino, California, that in an instant can update the data in an e-detailer from a central database in Berkshire or Beijing.

Generic therapy educational materials, available via websites and apps, and distributed by carers, charities, HCPs – and even shared by patients themselves on forums and blogs – have given rise to the need for a new kind of agency: one that combines brand comms, digital, PR, med ed and med comms.

These new agencies no longer smell of Magic Markers and Marlboro Lights; the layout pad has been replaced by the keyboard. The printer, the light box and stock photography book have all changed or vanished, along with the giveaway pens, pop-up mailers and free mouse mats. And when was the last time a motorcycle courier sped across London with a package stuffed with transparencies hot from the photographers?!

In this digital world all brands have become global. The internet has no passport control: if you say something in Sydney it can be heard in Rio in a nanosecond. This has meant that, by and large, campaign strategy has to start from a global perspective. This has sometimes led to the dumbing down of the creative product or to US-centric communications that have failed to translate around the world. 

The way forward is to create campaigns using a global team approach, one that engages and solicits buy-in and input; nothing so rigid that it becomes a straightjacket, but a simple structure that can be built upon.

Creativity is not dead; far from it. Never has there been more opportunity to push the creative envelope, and with the new digital age the rewards can be almost instant, for both the agency and the client.

As the digital age shrinks the world ever smaller, continues to break down borders and empowers people in even the most distant and remote of places, we – as an industry – are fighting against a tide of change that we no longer control. The agencies that will do best are the ones that can evolve the quickest. And I, for one, am looking forward to the next 20 years.

Article by
Kim Hughes

is creative director (and an original member) of OPEN LEC, part of the OPEN Health group and formerly Lane, Earl & Cox, which was established when The Directory first launched. 
She can be contacted at

6th November 2012


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