Pharma Marketing: How We Learned to Deliver Confident Counsel

File under: agile methodology, Big Data, Digital Marketing, Pharma innovation, Relationship Marketing

The transformation of closerlook into the firm it is today started simply enough. We realized that we had become what so many agencies strive for, the “trusted advisor” for our clients.

Trusted advisorBut that wasn’t enough.

The traditional role of an agency has long been one based on counsel. Agency heads would work hard to create a brand around the idea of a “proprietary” advisory relationship with their clients. Traditional agencies often built their reputations on the “big idea.” Success was when the client trusted you to craft a great story to dominate the media gestalt for a moment.

We started down the path of trusted advisor in earnest in 2008. That was the when we decided to focus exclusively on healthcare. We based this key decision on the realization that it wasn’t credible for a small agency to be an expert in more than one domain.

My bad
I argued for defining our healthcare focus as including pharma, health insurance, and health IT. That was a mistake. It took almost three years of muddling along before I admitted that “healthcare” wasn’t a narrow enough focus. We needed to drive deeper and narrower.

Hence, digital marketing for pharma.

With that declaration and the subsequent investments in domain expertise, our growth began. And it hasn’t stopped. But why the sudden change in fortune?

Were we now delivering better, more confident counsel?

I have often pointed to our decision to focus as the primary catalyst, but there was more to it than that. And much more to learn.

The role of data
As we began growing our digital marketing services, we found we were capturing interesting and useful data over the course of many campaigns. We began to learn how customers, in this case, physicians, consumed content and responded to the various programs we created. We built a database to support our digital tactics and to capture this longitudinal customer data.

But being curious, we also wondered how these same physicians were responding to the content they were getting through other sales and marketing channels. Most often other agencies would be handling these other tactics. So we came up with the idea of pulling all the data from these other channels into one single database and doing some serious cross-channel analysis.

The real challenge in managing data
As you can imagine, the technical challenges in building secure connections to different pharma ad agencies and third-party data sources to bring physician-level marketing data into one database was not easy. But the technical challenges paled beside the political and change management challenges in getting other agencies to willingly cooperate with their campaign data!

But in the end, we prevailed, creating an über customer database supporting multiple brands that our tech colleagues call a “cloud-based multi-tenant CRM application.” We named it Backstage®.

But what does this mean for our ability to deliver confident counsel to our clients? And what are the key lessons we’ve learned?

The new trusted advisor
The most important lesson is that the trusted advisor of the future must be tech-enabled. Even more to the point, analytics-enabled. And for pharma agencies, that requires an approach that is different than for most other industries.

Recently, digital, mobile and social media have taken much more prominent roles in the marketing mix. Data, software and programmatic technologies are asserting themselves at the big table. Vendors with new marketing platforms are selling into pharma marketing ops and IT departments.

But there’s a problem
There is a disconnect between data analytics and traditional agency counsel. Software companies want to sell software and turn the keys over to an internal team. Agencies want to protect their advisory role (and ad revenue) while largely playing lip service to the data.

Over the past several years we’ve seen both problems. Software companies are selling applications that aren’t practical for pharma brand teams or even a centralized marketing ops group to run. Agencies are still pretending that they can give sophisticated marketing advice without the benefit of insight from data analytics.

What we need is a blend of the two
What we have learned is that at least in pharma, we need a blend of the two. We need tech-enabled agencies that can manage and interpret a broad spectrum of data and use it to provide specific recommendations for marketing strategy, spend and mix.

In a pharma world with proliferating marketing channels, a general lack of digital marketing sophistication, and a new focus on marketing efficiency, the definition of confident counsel has changed dramatically.

A new operating culture
Confident counsel now involves creating a new operating culture in which pharma marketers manage a rolling set of insights, customer target lists and content recommendations prepared by their enlightened agencies. Where “lean” methods of development are borrowed from the software industry, leading to on-going collaborative models and making annual or even tri-annual POAs largely anachronistic.

For centralized pharma marketing organizations, access to this level of data and analytics across the portfolio is a godsend. They recognize how critical this is to their ability to make decisions. For senior brand managers who don’t have the bandwidth to get into the analytical weeds of their marketing execution, having an agency who is making data-driven recommendations based on a comprehensive view of the performance of their brand in market is exactly what they need now.

A new definition of agency
The importance of Confident Counsel hasn’t gone away. It’s more important than ever. But its definition, and more importantly, how one ensures that the counsel is not only confident but reliable and actionable, is changing. And that means an entirely different definition of the pharma agency is needed.

In the next post we will look at a several examples of how data insight is not just supporting good counsel, it’s providing new ways of achieving customer access leading to new sources of incremental revenue.

And that’s where this journey gets very interesting…

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