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2020 - a year to remember or forget?

2020 and the Covid pandemic brought immense challenges, and the need for change felt like it happened overnight. What have we learned and what does the future of agency working look like? Sarah Mikhailov, Managing Director, Brand

Well, where to start? 2020 will always be remembered for COVID. But let us not forget the political backdrop with elections, Brexit, a Royal abdication, bushfires, #metoo, Black Lives Matter and a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion, and don’t forget those killer bees – it has certainly been a year to remember.

COVID took centre stage. A shock to the world with devastating consequences. Working in healthcare at a time of a pandemic brings its own challenges but also opportunities. The need for change happened overnight. Clients were asking for virtual solutions to congresses, internal engagement, and innovative ways to keep their sales teams connected to their customers, and ensure patients remain informed and supported whatever their healthcare needs. All while we were relocating our offices to our homes.

But as we all know, the world of healthcare doesn’t ever stop – patients still need access to medicines and support and product launches still had to be delivered. COVID had an effect not only on patients who contracted the virus, but also on patients who suffered with other conditions. HCPs had to adjust how they delivered care (often though telemedicine) and address the many wider needs such as access to medicines. Certain patients have also had restricted access to their HCPs, creating a potential shift in the perceived value of ‘face-to-face’ interaction. Redefining and rebuilding the patient-HCP relationship will be a central part of many discussions as we move into 2021.

It has been a year that has tested us – as individuals and as a business – I am so proud of what has been achieved. Our teams have showed an exceptional agility to adapt to change, continually finding fresh solutions and still delivering the day-to-day work under so much pressure, the majority of the time working alone without the usual banter to uplift morale or to share ideas.

Future of agency working

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the impact COVID has had on agencies. In January 2020, we were told about COVID and by the end of March we were all working from home. After the initial shock and recalibration of what ‘working from home’ actually meant, everyone learnt how to adapt in their own way. Pets on keyboards, kids on ipads, adapting to Zoom and Teams. Finding ways to stay connected to people and feel part of a team was critical to everyone’s well-being and was vital to keep the wheels turning. We have survived, but it hasn’t always been easy and we have had many learnings along the way. 2021 will be about reimagining our workspace and fostering a different way of working.

Let’s not underestimate the importance of human interaction – we are social creatures – we work better together – learning from each other, elevating ideas and generating spontaneous moments of energy that feed our creative thinking. Flexible working and adaptable office spaces will be the future. Creative hubs, improved technology, content labs and innovation shows will become the norm – helping people optimise their time at home versus their time with the team – balancing the best of both worlds and helping people find reward and satisfaction whether they are at home or at work.

When it comes to healthcare communications in 2020, it has been a year of unprecedented change. From agency working to digitalization, here are a few things that I have been reflecting on as we look to the future.

Digitalization of healthcare communications

Obviously, I must talk digital. COVID has been the catalyst to help realise the opportunities in this sector, which has traditionally been slow to embrace digital change.

It has pushed healthcare companies to embrace digitalization – however you wish to define this. It feels like we have had more ‘digital and innovation’ sessions with our clients in the last year than in the past 10 combined! It has reset the partnerships between agency and Pharma – both finding our way together to reinvent marketing efforts in the short and long term. Our brand and communication strategies have quickly shifted to a more holistic view of customer engagement. Thank goodness. It has helped to break down the silos we sometimes suffer from – with joint tasks forces of medical, marketing, PR, advocacy all working together to redefine what HCP and patient engagement should look like. All of them forced to think differently and to innovate, showing what can be achieved when people are united by common, clear priorities and necessity.

We have seen various areas becoming high priority, depending on the client and brand needs but, overall, my observation has seen a focus in three main areas:

Reimagining the pharma sales force

How do we build relationships with our customers when we remove our field teams? Well, the answer is you don’t always need face to face interaction to create relationships (look at social media, where connections and communities are thriving). Sales teams and MSLs are not removed – they are optimised and online when needed. With many teams talking to their customers via an online platform, we have seen an uptake in different sales training approaches – considering how to probe, listen and provide solutions within a video call. It has driven a data-centred approach, with easier access to tracking and targeting through CRM systems. Materials have to be redesigned and optimised, as all our clients extend their CRM capabilities in readiness for these new, virtual interactions.

We have also seen solutions that don’t hinge on people. There has been a huge uptake in online self-led learning across educational and promotional content. Personalisation is also now becoming more ‘predictable’ to an extent, with the increased use of AI interfaces supporting the identification of learning and content preferences. All of this links into the need for personalisation and ‘going where our customers are’, which links me to my next point…

Meaningful media and getting social

Right message, right place, right time – you know the drill. Marketing comms 101. But digging deep into how to craft engaging, ‘thumb-stopping’ content amidst the dearth of COVID news means we must challenge ourselves. With everyone pushing content online to HCPs and patients, it is becoming more important to ensure a highly targeted and personalised approach – offering meaning and value.

Part of making your audience feel valued is establishing a dialogue with them. Earning the right to be part of the conversation and developing that sense of social connectedness at a time when people really need it. The effective use of social media plays a pivotal role in creating this sense of online community. Pharma is now embracing this. Not so long ago we would be saying to clients ‘we must get onto social media’ whereas now it is ‘how do we do more, optimise, and personalise this social engagement?’ How can we help make patient and HCP voices heard, to help create awareness and how can we use this insight and translate it into real change?

Social media has the value of creating a two-way conversation. This is the fundamental change. We want to move away from push communications and be part of supporting real conversations about meaningful topics. Now, taking it another step further, we must now also consider the impact that the absence of a digital or social media presence can have. Choosing not to engage could translate to a loss of share of voice and a detrimental impact on brand or corporate reputation.

Tech innovation

Here we go again. The tech revitalisation might just be here to stay! We have seen much more traction in tech solutions for everything from VR learning environments for medical training to Chatbot and AI virtual assistants. The door is open.

As agency partners it is our job to move fast and help realise these opportunities. PDF discussion guides are now instant messenger chatbots and disease awareness information is now being delivered by avatars. Healthcare has long suffered the dichotomy of cutting-edge science but slow uptake of technology – understandably driven by healthcare systems. But while a phone costs the same as a VR headset – accessibility and desire will soon ensure this balance is shifted.

So, the bar has been raised, as too have the expectations of our customers – patients, HCPs and clients alike. As an agency partner, we are here to inspire, find solutions and drive meaningful connections. It is a great time for us all to shine. Roll-on 2021, but maybe no more surprises for few months….please?

18th January 2021


Company Details

Havas Life Medicom

+44 (0)20 8481 8100

Contact Website

Ferry Works
Summer Road
Thames Ditton

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