A Long, Slow Walk Toward the Altar - Pharmaceutical Executive

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A Long, Slow Walk Toward the Altar


Pharmaceutical Executive


Al Topin
Twelve agencies respond to a 15-page request for proposal (RFP) for a new drug launch. Eight are called in to present capabilities. The out-of-town shops fly a team in and stay overnight to attend this two-and-a-half-hour meeting.

Four move forward and are given an extensive brief. For 30 days each agency team (at least eight to 10 senior account service, creative, and production staff) labors at building speculative strategies, communications plans, concepts, and tactics. Each then returns to the client to present their thinking to a group of top executives.

The client makes its choice, and the brand team and its winning agency are off to the races. Of course, the launch timing is tight—it always is—so the agency rushes to build a launch program, usually starting from scratch after the pitch. A comfortable 18-month process is squeezed into six, as both client and agency spend days, nights, and weekends developing a campaign, finagling with regulatory, responding to DDMAC, and getting it out the door. Thousands of e-mails and hundreds of conference calls later (plus many face-to-face meetings), they pull off the launch.

But even though the launch is deemed a success, the celebration doesn't last long. The client is shocked at the added costs that come in for multiple rounds of changes, overtime, and the added agency staff needed to get the job done. The agency team can't understand why its extra human efforts go unappreciated and now finds itself defending even the smallest invoice.

Communication becomes stilted. The agency is excluded from several planning meetings. Estimates and hours are challenged. And 18 months from the date of selection, the relationship comes to an end as the client calls for a review, which includes the current agency. The agency politely declines the opportunity.

A Marriage on the Rocks?

According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the average life-span of a client/agency relationship is now down to 2.7 years, compared to more than 8 years in the 1980s. Relationships that spanned multiple decades were not uncommon then. And no matter how discontent may arise, the model now seems to be to switch agencies rather than work on the relationship. Today it seems agencies can be changed as easily as brands of toothpaste or toilet paper.

Obviously, there are lots of good agency/client relationships out there. And honestly, some agency/client matches aren't good from the start and as such the partners are better off separating. But I believe that something has happened to the basic concept of agency/client relationships—and both parties are paying the price.

The Root Causes

Let's start by stating the obvious: Agency/client relationships have changed because business has changed. We live in a different environment, a different society. If we thought we didn't have enough time or money before, we have even less today. Less time for thinking, planning, and testing. Fewer dollars for brand programs, education, training, and so on.

Add to that the cultural shift that's going on as a result of digital technology and social media, and what you've got is an environment where chemistry, trust, and relationships seem to have lost their value. Conversations take place via e-mail and phone; face time is rare. We're all connected. We're "friends" with people we've met once. And then there's the "brand called 'me'" phenomenon—where people (normal businesspeople, not celebrities) are concerned with creating a brand out of themselves. Which means personal career and life goals trump those of the actual product, the team, and the company.

The fallout is seen in a number of ways, some subtle and some not:

Lesser understanding of how relationships and partnerships work.

Limited investment in building long-term relationships.

Management time frames reduced to the quarter rather than the year.

Decisions delegated down to lower levels of management.

Less value placed on commitment toward a common goal.

So we often find client managers with limited seasoning making decisions previously made by long-term veterans and upper management. And they're aligned with agency counterparts that have deep textbook learning and checklist training yet bear responsibility for managing serious high-level budgets.

The Hidden Costs

Obviously, there are actual costs when agency/client relationships end—hours agencies don't bill and won't ever recoup, and a client left feeling like they've spent a lot of money and don't have much to show for it. But there are other, less obvious costs that impact more than the bottom line.

The learning curve. We often hear reference to the value of the learning curve, the institutional knowledge that is built when an agency learns a client's business. Over time, the agency learns more than the product, the market, and the sales channels. It learns a client's procedures, communications channels, and med-reg process. The client learns an agency's processes, workflow patterns, and timing requirements. Knowing how the other works not only makes working together more efficient, but allows the agency to contribute on a deeper level.

History. With client team members swapped out as often as they are these days—on average, a product manager stays on board for about 18 months before moving on—it's critical for someone to have the history on the brand. Often, that's the agency. They can be invaluable when it comes to knowing strategies that have been discussed, understanding the target markets inside and out, and knowing what's been tried and failed in the past.

Trust. Clients and agencies that have chemistry and trust show it. They speak in shorthand created and learned under pressure. They're comfortable asking questions and challenging each other's thinking. Tight deadlines have bonded them together and helped turn nervous activity into positive energy. The agency isn't looking over its shoulder worried about a client's support, and the client isn't holding its breath hoping the agency will come through. As a group, they have confidence in what they can accomplish together.

Trust is the glue that holds agencies and clients together. But here's the thing—it takes time and energy, mistakes and mishaps. Cutting off an agency relationship too soon simply doesn't give it a chance to build.

The Continued Courting Ritual

The age of limited time and money is not going away. And the age of digital relationships and "brands called 'me'" has just begun. We're not going back to the days of corporate owners rolling up their sleeves and dealing directly with agency principles to create hall-of-fame campaigns. Some of those stories might have been enhanced by urban legends anyway.

Despite what's happening around us, however, we've got to get back to being better at relationships. If we don't, both clients and agencies suffer, not to mention the brands.

How? Stay tuned for Part II of this series. Don't expect secrets and miracles. Relationships take communication, time, and effort—which is not easy in today's digital, connected, fractionated, self-focused world.

Al Topin is president of Topin & Associates, a full-service medical marketing communications firm, and a member of Pharm Exec's Editorial Advisory board. He can be reached at

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