Why pharma agencies need cross-functional capabilities to survive

By Ken Begasse Jr., founder and CEO of Concentric Health Experience


Specialization isn’t always such a great survival strategy. Just ask a paleontologist. Or a panda. The panda may be one of the world’s cutest animals, but its total dependence on bamboo has also made it one of the world’s most endangered. The panda’s story has repeated many times in the course of natural history – an animal that became so specialized that a small shift in its environment led to a precipitous decline or extinction.

Specialization isn’t such a great parenting strategy either. Many commentators have raised the issue of overspecialization in childhood sports. To quote David Epstein in the New York Times: “The heightened pressure on child athletes to be, essentially, adult athletes has fostered an epidemic of hyperspecialization that is both dangerous and counterproductive.” In a June 2014 article, Epstein cited studies showing both health and performance benefits for children who sample a variety of sports rather than focus on a single one – and noted the large number of adult-grade injuries suffered by those that don’t.

So why is all this relevant to the modern pharmaceutical marketer?

Because the age of specialization by pharma marketing agencies, if there ever was such an age, needs to end.

Remember those golden days when the world was full of “digital” agencies, “traditional” agencies, “specialty drug” agencies, “orphan drug” agencies, “managed markets” agencies, et cetera? You don’t have to remember back very far; many of those agencies still exist, and some are even successful. But they, like the coelacanth, are living fossils, survivors from a bygone era. Constantly asked to do more with less, and overwhelmed by data from an ever-growing number of sources, most brand managers today have neither the time nor the resources to deal with a stable-full of agency partners, one for each discrete little part of the brand’s communications strategy. As the tools of marketing grow more complex, they seek efficiency and simplicity – a single partner who can simultaneously speak the language of high strategy and be able to execute in all its facets.

Aside from the obvious – efficiency and cost to the client – there are plenty of other reasons why modern agencies should eschew specialization.

Modern brands must view strategy holistically.

Rather than through the lens of any individual channel. Terms like “digital strategy,” “content strategy,” and “sales force strategy” have lost their meaning in the cacophony of modern brand communications. The folks at the receiving end of the digital, the content, and the sales force don’t compartmentalize all those different communications in their minds, so why should we? Digital, content, sales forces, social media, KOL presentations, DTC advertising, MOA videos, whatever – these are all tactics, different routes to the audience, that should be a reflection of a single holistic communications strategy applying to all routes. An agency selling “digital strategy” or “content strategy” is rather like a builder selling a lovely master bedroom without the rest of the house; the house is what gives the bedroom its structure and meaning.   

Modern brands should draw no line between strategy and execution; they are iterative, one flowing into the other and back.

Back before Einstein, people believed that space and time were discrete entities. Plenty still do. And plenty of pharma marketers still believe that strategy is a discrete task and execution is another. So some smart folks who know lots of buzzwords should get together and hash out a “strategic plan” for a brand, which they then send over to some other folks to “execute.” Then the smart folks move on to the next brand, as do the other folks.

Given the granularity with which we can track our audiences’ behaviors today, doing things that way now seems a little silly.

“StrategyExecution” may sound a little more awkward than “SpaceTime,” but it’s just as accurate. Any strategy worth the name should flow from what is learned through audience response to previous communications; it should be constantly changing and growing and maturing to reflect the impact of whatever is being executed in its name. And then whatever is being executed must change to reflect the change in strategy. And around and around again, every day, irrespective of the vagaries of specific media. On top of that, the people responsible for the strategy and the people responsible for the execution, if they aren’t the same people, should be working side by side every day, to facilitate that cycle. That can’t happen effectively in an environment with multiple competing “specialist” agencies.

Modern brands must be unitary.

One of the dangers of our rapidly multiplying toolbox of communications media – and of concepts like “digital strategy” and “sales force strategy” – is that brands look so different in so many different channels that they are hardly brands at all anymore; every brand is fractured into a dozen of little sub-brands that might or might not be able to breed with each other. So let’s go back to basics. Wake up any two members of your brand team – preferably of two different disciplines, like digital and sales force content – from a dead sleep at 3 A.M. and ask them each to explain exactly what your brand stands for, what it looks like, what its value prop is, why it should matter to its target audience. If their answers don’t match, then your brand’s strategy probably isn’t unitary enough. It’s hard enough to maintain a unitary brand when everyone is working from the same playbook; doing so when a whole cornucopia of specialized agencies are involved becomes exponentially more difficult.

Modern agencies must serve as marketing Sherpas across multiple media for their clients.

Just as brand managers don’t have the time to deal with stables full of agency partners, they also don’t have the time to keep up with all the twists and turns of new marketing tools and technologies. Magnifying that, the pharmaceutical industry’s marketers are by nature slow to adapt, as might be expected in a space that’s been so heavily regulated for so long, and where mistakes are punished so severely. But people will try all kinds of loopy activities with far less potential upside – like climbing Mount Everest, perhaps – if an expert guide is alongside to hold their hand. If brands must be pushed to the forefront of marketing technologies in order to reach their audiences – and yes, sometimes they must – and if brand managers can’t do the pushing on their own, then we as agencies need to be the expert guides. Whether through drafting social media “bibles,” offering periodic updates on the state of technologies, making the business case for some new channel that’s particularly well-suited to a brand, or some other method yet unknown, it is our responsibility as marketing partners to proactively provide that expert hand. A specialized agency might have the capability to do that in one or two areas; a generalist, “grand strategy” agency offers strategic thinking and specialists and Sherpa-like expertise across all angles of brand communications. Brand managers shouldn’t have to search through a little black book of phone numbers for answers to their marketing technology questions; one phone call should be enough.

Specialized agencies can’t really think strategically.

I know, I know, this is the one that is going to generate all the hate mail. But it’s true, self-evidently so. More than ever, pharma brand managers want and need high-level strategic thinking that takes all the pieces of the marketing puzzle into account. No matter how smart its people are, how can an agency that focuses all its energy on just one or two pieces of said puzzle be expected to provide that? Miles’ Law of Management states it succinctly: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” If an agency “sits” in the digital world only, it defies human nature to expect that agency to offer anything but digital-centric strategies and solutions. Only an agency with deep cross-functional capabilities is going to be able to provide the kind of high-level strategic thinking that pharma clients are demanding.

Whether in nature or in business, evolution waits for no one and pities no one – if you don’t believe me, just ask your local panda, or your local coelacanth, if you can find one. As the number of paths to both patients and HCPs grows and their expectations grow alongside, our industry is evolving towards greater efficiency – of both dollars and decision making – many layered multi-media strategy, and more unitary brands. In the end only strategically integrated agencies, agencies with depth across every medium and function, agencies with insight into every component of the modern brand strategy and how those components mix together, are going to survive the next great extinction. Only they will be able to serve the truly modern brand.