Looking for a Healthcare Marketing Firm? Versatility Is the Key

December 17, 2014
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darren-stevens-and-larry-tate

Darren tries in vain to explain content marketing to a highly suspicious Larry Tate.

darren-stevens-and-larry-tate

Darren tries in vain to explain content marketing to a highly suspicious Larry Tate.

Over the past few months, we’ve been writing a lot about the pharmaceutical industry, life sciences marketing, and the agency business model. And we’ve published what we believe to be the definitive guide for healthcare marketers in 2015. What I’d like to talk about now is, in light of the lightning fast changes taking place in healthcare, what should clients be looking for when hiring a marketing firm?

Notice that I said “healthcare marketing firm” and not “advertising agency” or “public relations agency.” There is a big difference. In my experience, after working with hundreds of clients from top 15 global pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology companies, diagnostics companies, small to mid-sized specialty pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and more, when clients look at agencies, most of them see those agencies through the prism of their personal experience.

So for example, if you are talking to a marketing director who spent most of his career in advertising, he or she will most likely have an in-depth understanding of advertising. But they may have a very limited understanding of content marketing, public relations, medical communications, or social media.

This creates major challenges for the agency sitting on the other side of the table, particularly when the marketing director they are meeting with is responsible for bringing a new agency on board. Sometimes, we find ourselves talking a language that the potential client simply doesn’t understand.

Fortunately, as the industry continues to change, marketing professionals are changing along with it. Today’s healthcare marketers are far more versatile than ever before, simply because they have to be in order to survive. Alas, there are also still plenty of Darren Stevens’s and Larry Tates out there too.

One of my favorite sayings (and I have a few) is:

“If you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

I can see my colleagues rolling their eyes as I type those words. But what this saying illustrates very clearly is this: If you look to an advertising agency to solve your biggest marketing challenges, guess what the solutions are going to be? And if you hire a PR firm that spends 90% of its time trying to get clients into the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, what kind of recommendations do you think that PR agency is going to give you?

Marketers at life sciences companies should be focused on finding partners who are versatile, first and foremost. These days, chances are there are a number of potential solutions to any given problem that marketers at life sciences companies are facing. We have more tools available to us today than every before. Make sure your agency knows how to use all of them.

Asking the right questions of a prospective agency could save you a lot of pain down the road. Because if you end up hiring a “hammer,” then you aren’t going to get much outside the box thinking from your agency. And you can’t blame the agency focusing on the one thing that it knows how to do.

When you are probing for versatility, good questions to ask an agency are:

  • What kinds of work have they done before?
  • Can they provide specific examples of creative solutions to major marketing challenges?
  • What kinds of backgrounds does their team have?
  • Is the agency team’s experience base diverse enough to allow for unique insights?
  • Is the agency “media neutral,” operating across paid, earned, shared and owned channels?
  • What kinds of insights does the agency have on how life sciences marketing has changed over the past five years?

That last question is a trick question. It should tell you all you need to know about how “tuned in” the agency is to what’s been happening around them. And if the agency answers that, in their view, things really haven’t changed all that much, be a Samaritan and immediately check for a pulse or hold a mirror up to the agency executive’s mouth to make sure they are still alive. And then run as fast as you can, and go hire somebody else.

These are exciting times to be in healthcare communications, if we’re willing and able to embrace the lightning fast pace of change and convergence, and give our clients solutions that meet their needs, not the needs of our new business forecasts.