Why Does The Pharmaceutical Industry Have A Promiscuous Relationship With Its Communication Agencies?

Hard to believe that in the consumer goods, financial, and motor industry sectors many client/agency relationships have lasted up to 50 years, in some cases, and in many instances average at least a decade.

Compare this to the hire-and-fire approach taken by some in the pharma industry. While there are some long-standing pharma/agency partnerships, it is not uncommon to replace agencies on an annual basis. Neither it is unusual to remove them if something relatively minor occurs or the chemistry isn’t right.

Is it sensible to believe that creativity and price competitiveness can only be achieved by wielding the sword of Damocles over the heads of the agency with the constant threat of repitch?

Currently there is huge pressure on the pharma industry to improve innovation and efficiency, and sustain or gain competitive advantage. Can this be achieved by continuing to engage with communications agencies in such a promiscuous manner?

At a time when there is a reduction in internal resources in the industry, the true cost of an agency change should be considered. Beyond just the monetary cost, each agency change will involve:

  •  Writing a brief
  • Selecting agencies to take part
  • Q&As in the lead-up to pitch with each agency
  • Pitching 3 to 4 agencies with a minimum half-day each, involving multiple internal stakeholders
  • Bringing a new agency on board with medical and marketing briefings
  • Familiarizing the new agency with company and team processes

All the above can impact what is a condensed marketing lifespan for many products. In addition, companies often lose the knowledge base, continuity of talent, and learning that are some of the benefits of a long-term relationship.

However, it is a true sense of partnership that is often missing on both sides. Why do clients and agencies behave any differently than they would upon entering and sustaining any other relationships?

All successful long-term relationships rely on trust, solving problems together, communication transparency, working out where things are going wrong and resolving them in partnership for a better outcome.

Then there is creativity: how do you keep each other excited in a relationship? It takes hard work and planning—date nights, trying something new together, having fun! This would be hard to do if your partner was constantly threatening to look elsewhere, telling you that others were far more attractive and exciting, and perhaps cheaper to keep!  Why would you want to give your best to a partner who focused on blame, didn’t give you a second chance when things were not going as well as expected, or was not willing to see that “it takes two to tango”?

On the agency side, when there is little belief in the long-term partnership, it is too easy to change the talent resource, be closed to investing in the relationship, not give your absolute best, and not be flexible in the remuneration model. This behavior in turn leads to an unsatisfied partner, and the vicious cycle continues.

With true partnership, the pharma industry and agencies can only gain. Open and trusting communications, a belief that problems can and will be mutually fixed, a sense of loyalty and collective focus on the brand will reap rewards. This includes the agency’s willingness to invest in the relationship, the best talent wanting to work on accounts with clients who behave in this way, a desire to go the extra mile, and a focus on creativity and innovation rather than worrying about the wandering eye of the pharma industry!


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Who Sped Up The Pitch Clock?

What is happening to pharma’s new business pitch process?

It seems that recently the process has become more and more compressed. Major partnership decisions are being made based on a one-hour presentation—which is based on the agencies often being given only two weeks to prepare a full pitch, including brand strategy and creative.

While I can appreciate the pressures pharma is facing, it seems that providing a potential long-term partner with sufficient time to think about their business, develop sound recommendations and then deliver those recommendations in a respectful period of time might produce a more successful outcome and lead to fewer “re-pitches” just a year later. I also believe it’s difficult to get a sense of true chemistry in just a one-hour period.

A better pitch process model starts off with a brief agency interview to get to know the agency team members and determine if, in fact, they are worthy of participating in the RFP process. This is followed by completion of a thoughtfully written RFP, with the client narrowing the selection down to the top three agencies (vs. a cattle call). Next comes the opportunity to speak in person with the brand team and ask questions that better inform the agency’s efforts as well as test chemistry, being provided three to four weeks to develop the pitch, and finally, having the client excited and eager to invest a reasonable amount of time for the presentation and the opportunity to interact with each agency. Evaluating the potential partner further by conducting a site visit and spending more time with the extended team seems as if it would help to truly solidify such an important partnership decision.

As an agency, I would be pleased to invest more time in pitches for clients who are willing to do the same to secure a meaningful long-term partnership that would ultimately produce truly great work and positive business results.

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