Patients are developing increasingly high expectations from pharmaceutical ads. They want to know how they/their family can benefit from a pharmaceutical product, what the risks are, how to contact the company, where to find resources, and ultimately whether they can trust the company. That’s a big ask. And without the right ad agency driving the production and targeting of ads, there’s grave danger in misleading the public.
This high standard can run into big problems with a non-scientific ad agency. And if you’re in this situation right now, you know exactly what we’re talking about. The experience likely began with a skilled pitch team made of smart executives who made an amazing pitch. But what you didn’t know was that the agency would pass your account on to junior members who don’t understand science, pharmaceuticals, and how to communicate this through copywriting. The result is inaccurate and misleading messaging—not telling the story about the value of the drug.
Commercial drug advertising is a stand-alone marketing category that demands a scientific ad agency. If you’re not working with one, you’re missing out. And you’re not alone. As the marketing and pharmaceutical landscapes change, what was done in the past has to change. As Patricio Robles wrote for Econsultancy in 2019, “In some cases, pharma companies will need to consider making broader strategic changes to ensure that they have something to communicate that would be well-received by providers, patients and payers alike.”
Whether you’re just starting to look for a scientific ad agency, or you’re in need of rescue from your current agency, here’s what to look for:
Working with Your Current Agency
There are some strategies you can employ to work with your current agency. The first option is to hire a consultant or rescue agency to help the existing agency be successful. If you are locked into a contract or don’t want to change the relationship for other business reasons, bringing in outside help for the AOR or digital agency can provide a significant amount of value.
Establish Quality Assurance protocols with your agency. Ask them to provide you with a copy of their training programs for their staff around HIPPAA, GDPR, OPDP regulations, IRB/EC standards, FDA Guidance Letters, and other relevant practice guidelines. This compels the agency to really dig in.
Ensure subject matter experts like media planners, copywriters, and search engine marketing specialists are included on med-legal review calls. Often hearing concerns straight from the source can build a much clearer understanding than by playing the telephone game through multiple layers of brand managers and account executives.
If you still can address the problems arising from a non-scientific ad agency, it’s time to look for a new agency. Consider beginning with a rescue agency to start. Rescue agencies have a track record of cleaning up what is left behind and can help you fire on all cylinders right out of the gate.
Scientific Ad Agencies Speak the Right Languages
If you were looking to expand your business into a foreign market, you’d look for an agency fluent in that country’s language and culture to ensure you communicate effectively and accurately. It’s exactly the same for an ad agency marketing commercial drugs.
The agency must be fluent in the medical, legal, and regulatory language of pharmaceuticals. At the least, they must have a consultant well-versed in these languages to help them effectively navigate campaigns. Ask agencies which experts they rely on to accomplish this essential activity.
Do they have someone who understands the way science and medicine work? Do they have experience reading clinical trial protocols and data? Do they have someone in their agency that has experience reading and understanding medical education materials? It’s not enough to know marketing; they must know the science behind pharma products and how the data should influence both positioning and storytelling.
Find out if the agency you are working with has a solid history of understanding, mapping, and developing tailored messaging and assets for each stage of the patient, HCP, and payer journeys.
Many referral pathways are complex and require nuance to effectively influence those involved. For example diseases like diabetic retinopathy are managed by a cadre of generalists and specialists from GPs, endocrinologists, and diabetologists to ophthalmologists and retinal specialists who all can diagnose the disease and need to communicate with each other in managing the patient’s care.
On the surface, many marketers would think that targeting ophthalmologists is the right play since this is a problem that leads to blindness. But the disease is managed through controlling blood sugar levels—which is managed by the endocrinologist—and many patients are asymptomatic until the disease is too far progressed to effectively treat.
Understanding exactly which points in a patient’s journey coincide with effective treatment, and which HCP they will see at these points is a critical component of a successful ad campaign. The best images and slogans we create won’t do any good without our understanding of the disease process and how and where the drug works.
Ethoseo wrote an article about Pharmaceutical Advertising Strategy for Brand Managers that gives a good overview of everything that needs to be considered. Your ad agency needs to understand the patient, HCP, or caregiver journey just like the diabetes example. Ethoseo notes, “Patients, healthcare providers, and caregivers have separate goals when it comes to interacting with pharmaceutical brands. And those goals evolve over time, as a direct reflection of where they are in their healthcare journey.”
Commercial drug ads need to include the right language for the audience, and this changes as the audience changes. Fluency is essential, both for communicating effectively with the audience and for maintaining full regulatory compliance (more on that later).
Commercial Drug Advertising Experience
HEALTHCARE SUCCESS writes that “In healthcare, it’s not safe to assume that “marketing is marketing,” or that a new agency can learn on the job.” You need an agency that has proven they can effectively advertise in the commercial drug category.
While it’s good to look for agencies with healthcare client rosters reflective of your therapeutic area and for examples that show a proven track record, you need to know that the people who will actually be working on your company’s campaign have experience.
It’s not enough for the executive or agency principals who are pitching to you to have experience—unless they’re the ones who will be directly working with you and reviewing deliverables. With smaller or niche agencies this is much less of an issue as they tend to work in close teams and the execs play an active role, but it’s still important to ask who exactly will be involved.
A great tool for understanding an agency’s drug advertising experience recommended by Gareth Roberts for Orientation Marketing is to ask the agency about key pharma marketing challenges and center a discussion around these challenges. It’s “a great way to determine whether the agency understands pharma marketing, and subsequently, understands your customers.” Follow this with questions about solutions to these problems so “you can gauge the strategic capability of the agency in this context.”
Avoid Pretty Portfolios
By all means, if everything else about an ad agency checks out, you can evaluate that pretty portfolio. But when it comes to commercial drug advertising, you need far more than shiny ads. In another HEALTHCARE SUCCESS blog dedicated to exactly this issue, they recommend analyzing the results of the portfolio by asking these questions, “What was the goal of this campaign? How did you measure Return-On-Investment? In measurable and quantifiable results, how did this perform?”
The blog goes on to recommend looking for an ad agency with a mutual mindset. Does the agency offer a single solution (like a social media ad) or are they looking for solutions that are measurable and results-based? Do they have a range of creative capabilities including traditional, online, and digital advertising? If you see something in the portfolio that resonates, ask for details on the effectiveness of the campaign.
This graphic shows how all the elements of a pharmaceutical ad strategy need to fit into a deep understanding of the drug, the patient journey, and the KPIs.
Look for a Smaller, Niche Agency
There’s a very good reason brands are looking to smaller agencies for their marketing needs: These agencies are committed to the ongoing success of every brand they partner with. And it’s a true partnership where both sides have the same goals. In a September 2019 article, cmds notes that “top brands are choosing smaller, more specialized firms. This is true across all industries, but especially in pharma… specialization is the name of the game in healthcare marketing. Knowledge of the current regulations, legal concerns and industry specific best-practices is essential for effective and efficient marketing.”
As cmds describes, “Large marketing agencies… learned what works best for them, how they can bill the most, and have established a firm process for how things work… Boutique marketing agencies are magnets for the most talented and innovative marketers.”
Smaller agencies are agile and stretch advertising budgets further. One of the reasons is lower overhead. Another is that every employee is essential in a smaller agency and is dedicated to the success of their portfolio and of their agency. In a smaller agency, there are no inexperienced junior members doing the heavy lifting without personal buy-in while executives relax in the big office. That kind of waste just isn’t possible for small agencies. As we’ve seen at our own agency, personal involvement of the entire team results in excellent work, every time, by every employee. And it’s something we’re all proud of.
Legal and Regulatory Considerations
Litigation surrounding the opioid crisis is having an impact on pharmaceutical advertising. People, governments, and healthcare workers are angry. In an NPR article, Brian Mann quotes Senator Maggie Hassan speaking to industry executives, “Companies like Janssen and Purdue Pharma fueled this epidemic, employing deceptive and truly unconscionable marketing tactics despite the known risk, so you could sell more drugs to maximize your profits.”
There is far too much at stake to use an ad agency that doesn’t clearly know the legal and regulatory considerations around commercial drug advertising. Not only do they need to know this, but they also need to understand the critical nature of following these rules.
Chris M. describes this perfectly in the cmds article: “boutique healthcare marketing agencies are medical and pharmaceutical industry experts… They know all the latest regulations from the FDA, FTC, USDA, ACA, Stark Law, Medicare, Medicaid, HIPPA, and every other current and proposed law, statute, policy, guideline, lobbyist group, event and influencing body.”
It is not the pharmaceutical brand’s job to educate their agency on legal and regulatory requirements, but it will completely fall on their shoulders if they fail to follow these in any marketing. Put simply, you need an ad agency who knows what you can/cannot say in an ad, and what you must include in every front-facing piece of communication that is connected with your brand.
Make sure your ad agency knows the difference between product claim advertisements, reminder advertisements, and help-seeking advertisements, and knows which regulatory body is responsible for each of them. Do they know which platforms allow commercial drug ads? Clinical trial ads? Which countries permit commercial drug advertising?
There’s an overall trend towards focusing on meaningful professional relationships between businesses. Driven by the mutual need to know that the company you’re working with is committed to long-term success, executives and account managers are looking at one more key question before signing a contract: can I work with this person/agency for years to come?
Relationships are especially important to smaller marketing agencies. Chris M writes, they “have limited clients, so they truly focus on the ones they have. In many cases, smaller marketing agencies start to feel like part of your team – like you are working together towards a common goal. There is less focus on billable hours and more focus on how they can help your business grow – because when you succeed, they succeed.”
When you’ve found an agency that is fluent in medical, legal, and regulatory language, understands the science of pharmaceuticals and healthcare, can read and interpret clinical studies, has a proven track record in commercial drug advertising, and is ready to put real, experienced people to work on your campaigns who value the client-agency relationship, you are well on your way to rescuing your commercial drug from a non-scientific ad agency.