The client-agency relationship is a product of its environment. Chock-full of regulatory requirements, scandals, and heightened FDA scrutiny, the current environment leaves much to be desired. But this is hardly news for the pharma industry. "The new guidelines and stricter codes amount to nothing more than change—it's part of the fabric of our industry and it's expected," says Joe Daley, president of GSW Worldwide. But now, in particular, with the recent self-imposed PhRMA guidelines and the increased sensitivity toward mass market DTC advertising—partly inspired by the Vioxx debacle—there's a sense of urgency to think outside the box and reevaluate traditional DTC methods. While these new developments may inspire clients and agencies to think more creatively, they also can introduce new tensions and challenges to their relationships.
In light of the industry's tense, pressure-cooker climate, clients are desperately trying to avoid being the subject of controversy. "Clients are starting to over-respond, bunker up, and become more rigid," says Jim Sandino, president of the Sandino Group and former president of Lowe Consumer Healthcare. "Their mindset is protective. They want agencies to tell them what's the right thing to do from a regulatory standpoint."
While agencies will try to accommodate their clients' concerns and new-found conservatism, they will also continue to push the envelope. "The agency's mindset is: 'How can we figure out how to market the product effectively?'" Sandino says. "It's [the agency's] job to try to break new ground and be innovative." This, however, can create tension with clients, who are traditionally inclined toward more conservative approaches. But, according to Daley, it is a healthy tension "that results from pushing the envelope as far as you can in order to discover where the edge is. And you often won't know where the edge is until you've crossed it," he says. "But as long as the client understands that and lets you push them to that edge, then you have a partnership."
Cheryl Lubbert, EVP at Informed Medical Communications, says that clients expect agencies to offer alternative DTC methods, like webcasts and in-person meetings.
But defining that edge can be a challenge as both parties may have different interpretations of the regulatory guidelines and their applications. "One person's risk is not another person's risk," says Gene Guselli, CEO of InfoMedics, a company specializing in patient experience programs. "It's important for an agency to understand how their particular client views the world because all clients view it differently."
Joe Daley, president of GSW Worldwide, says clients need to understand how their internal guidelines fit in with the governing guidelines and regulations.
New Roles and Responsibilities
To bridge this disconnect, agencies will have to develop an even deeper grasp of the regulatory guidelines. "It's no longer just about understanding science—agencies now have to make judgment calls," says Mark Perlotto, executive vice president, chief marketing officer at Adair-Greene. Historically, he says, agencies have only had to have a peripheral knowledge of what they could or couldn't do from a regulatory perspective. "They would mostly rely on the client's regulatory department to keep the marketing within boundaries," Perlotto says. But now, he says, agencies will be called upon to have the equivalent knowledge of a typical product manager—to know the laws and regulations inside out. "This will be a challenge for some agencies, as this has not been part of their core competencies in the past," he says.