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Wanted: A Trusted Advisor


Al Topin on redefining your ad agency's role in today's complex pharma market

Al Topin on redefining your ad agency’s role in today’s complex pharma market

It’s hard to be a pharmaceutical brand these days. The challenges, communications channels, and conversations have multiplied, turning the pathway to success into a multilevel maze. Regulations, reimbursement, and relationships are in flux, creating the enemy of sound planning: uncertainty.

And as science continues to advance, the drugs being brought to market are more complex than ever before. More discoveries in difficult, specialty disease states mean therapies with challenging side effects, specialty delivery systems, black box warnings, and REMS programs.

All of which requires more complicated marketing than in the good old days. Brand teams today often divide and conquer by divvying up responsibilities either by target market, communication channel, or other areas of the marketing mix. Which in turn results in a number of different marketing partners (not only advertising and med ed, but managed care consultants, CRM companies, and so on) being brought on board, each one a specialist in their area of expertise.

Makes sense, right? For the most part, yes. Just as it makes sense for patients to consult medical specialists when necessary, it makes sense for brand managers to consult specialists within the marketing realm as well. Given the many voices and overlapping areas of responsibility when multiple marketing partners are involved, however, it’s easy to imagine interesting meetings with conflicting points of view. That’s a good thing—it gives the brand team a wealth of expertise, advice, and alternatives for any given situation. But it can also obscure the path forward or even confuse the process itself.

So in an increasingly complex market that demands an increasing number of players at the marketing table, wouldn’t you think brand managers could use a trusted, experienced advisor to help guide the process? Someone to help sort and simplify the input and opinions? Someone to maintain the voice of the customer and maintain focus of a multipartner team?

A role your ad agency was born to play

Alright, this suggestion may seem to come out of our own enlightened self-interest, but we believe that your advertising agency can be that trusted advisor you’re looking for. If you have the right agency, and you allow them to do so, they are well suited to play a unique, valuable role in support of your brand. They can become your:

Big picture strategist. While each brand team member and each partner company need to develop specific strategies based on their focus, your agency can support you with the high-level view needed to keep everyone pointed in the same direction.

Voice of the customer. The reality is that as a brand manager, you’re bombarded by guidance from upper management, sales, regulatory, and more. Your agency can make sure you and the team never forget to listen to the most important person to your brand: your customer.

Focusing lens. Keeping brand team members on the same page, not to mention their associated partners or agencies, can be a challenge. A good agency can help focus efforts and maintain singularity throughout the process.

And why the ad agency? Simply put, of all the players on your team, the agency is the keeper of your brand. Branding is about building value for a product, a value that is created through positioning, messaging, and communication (and of course through experience with the brand itself). These are (or should be) the strengths of your ad agency. Given the expertise they bring in promotional communications, it’s not a stretch to think of them as the ultimate advocate for your customer and the group that can help position your brand to meet the customer’s needs. Plus, as the partner who helps put direct selling material into the sales reps’ hands, your agency is closest to the key brand transaction: the physician script.

The bottom line in marketing is to sell product. The advertising business came into existence to help sell products. It’s what we do and how we think.

Playing the part

Here’s how you can begin to reframe the role of your advertising agency to become the true keeper of your brand and voice of your customer.

Bring them into the planning process early. Waiting to bring the agency in until you need creative concepts robs you of valuable insight during the critical strategy and planning stages. As an advisor, they can operate outside of typical corporate constraints (okay, politics) and make sure the customer and the brand has a clear, vocal champion. Plus, they can begin connecting the dots between trial endpoints, claims, and brand messaging.

Ask them to voice alternative points of view during group meetings. While they will certainly create some discomfort, their ability to play devil’s advocate and vet the group’s ideas can result in more solid thinking and robust reasoning.

Give them permission to tell you you’re wrong. A good agency will not only challenge other partners’ thinking when appropriate, but they’ll challenge you as well. And as long as it’s done respectfully, professionally, and in the best interest of the brand, you should listen.

Keep them listening to the conversations. As the conversation in healthcare keeps changing with new demands on physicians’ time, patients demanding more control and new players added to the mix, task the agency with monitoring and reporting on these multilevel discussions and applying that information to the planning process.

So do you have the right agency?

All of this assumes, of course, that your agency is up to the task of playing the role of a trusted advisor. Don’t worry, if you’ve hired a good one, they are. And here’s what you should look for:

Collaborators, not competitors. If your agency is going to be at the center, they need to demonstrate the ability to work with other partners and champion the best ideas, no matter where they come from. They need the skills to facilitate and orchestrate appropriately, keeping the larger group focused on what’s important for the brand.

A unique voice. Your agency needs to have the courage to speak up. And to ask the tough questions, to advocate alternative points of view, and to challenge groupthink when necessary. All with a smile, of course.

Big picture thinkers. Their role demands the ability and understanding to see the bigger picture. Not just good planning skills or creativity, but an understanding of the process of creating value for the company, shareholders, and stakeholders.

Common sense. Maybe most importantly, your agency needs to have common sense and know how to apply it. Because when all is said and done, you and your team need a marketing plan, program, and campaign that are realistic, executable, and affordable.

Our market is getting more complex by the minute, and with it our plans, our programs, and our teams. One solution that may make it a bit easier is to redefine the role of your agency to one that can truly help you manage today’s environment.


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