Ad Header



The Pulse of the Pharmaceutical Industry

How pharma agencies can become patient agencies (in 5 easy steps)

Written by: | | Dated: Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

By Jeff Greene

If you’re a successful pharmaceutical marketing agency in 2015, you’re faced with a conundrum: • It’s getting harder for your clients to promote their products to physicians

• It’s getting easier for your clients to promote their products to patients

As your account team knows painfully well, pharma companies aren’t buying nearly as many detail aids and dinner presentations as in the past. Why should they, with ZS Associates (AccessMonitor, 2014) pegging physician access at an all-time low? And pharma’s new products – orphan drugs, biologics – target smaller disease niches that are often patient-driven. Those patients, by the way, have a wealth of digital tools they’re using to learn about and influence treatment on their own.

How should your agency respond? Simple: Accelerate your patient offering. That’s just what many traditional pharma shops have been doing, whether through acquisition or evolution. Yet “adding patient” is easier said than done. As one pharma brand manager told us after a tense creative presentation, “By the time we’re done teaching [the agency] what patients want, it’ll be off patent.”

So why has the transition to patient been rocky?

The Problem: Selling Is Easier Than Solving

Marketing to physicians primarily has been a sales challenge. The business objective is pretty clear: Get them to write our drug. Pharma marketing has succeeded here due to its brilliant marriage of scientific insight with the discipline of branding. The recipe is tried and true:

• Strategy isolates the product’s clinical differentiator (say, reduction in pruritus)

• Creative communicates it with daring imagery (skin that’s been itched down to the bone)

• Copy and Medical shore up the campaign with comprehensive charts, data, and references

• Media picks the journals and websites where the ads will run


The recipe has been working. The creative stops doctors in their tracks. Prescriptions are written. Sales goals are exceeded. In fact, this winning formula was successfully copied to launch DTC. A few minor ingredients changed: “clinical differentiator” became “core consumer benefit.” Renderings of body parts were replaced with cartoon bees and his/hers bathtubs.

Again, it worked. Patients stopped in their tracks. Even more prescriptions were written as consumers requested products they saw on TV. Modern blockbusters like Nasonex and Cialis were born.

But what about now? Medical advertising and DTC are good at selling, but not necessarily solving the patient-centered business challenges facing today’s pharmas. For example, brands continue to struggle with patients dropping off treatment, due to side effects or fear of them. Many products are only effective when the patient sticks to a certain diet. When patients don’t, doctors prescribe something else. And some products are complicated by a device or dosing quirk. How can a nebulized treatment grow if patients can’t learn to use the nebulizer?

The Five Steps

Agencies can generate all the scientific insight and creative stopping power in the world, but it won’t teach patients the skills and behaviors they need to successfully manage their health conditions. Fortunately, your agency can make the jump. Here’s what you need to do:

1 Change your mindset from “advertising” to “outcomes” As we’ve shared, patient marketing isn’t about awareness or sales, the two cornerstone metrics in traditional medical advertising. My colleague Liz Carden, MPH, CHES, a health behaviorist, puts it this way: “Marketing to patients is about building their skills and confidence – to become advocates for their health, to seek help when they need it, to be vocal with their physicians. It’s making them believe they are a crucial piece of the puzzle, which they are, more than ever.” For agencies, put marketing aside for a minute and imagine: How can we inspire people to make a difference in their own lives? That’s a shift, but one that can be deeply rewarding for creatives and account teams.

2 Recognize patient marketing is harder than physician marketing. We all cringed recently when a creative director said his team would “dumb down” a physician brochure so patients could understand it. Besides being insensitive, the comment showed how little he understood the gestalt of patient marketing. It’s hard to take a scientific topic and make it accessible to those without medical training! In fact, the medical narrative may be of marginal interest to patients. A good patient strategist must uncover the non-medical, emotional drivers behind patient behavior. Why won’t patients report side effects to their physicians? Why are they eating foods they know will interfere with their medicine’s effectiveness? Uncover these answers and you’ll not only be helping patients. You’ll also be solving critical client business challenges. Just don’t expect it to be easy.

3 Elevate digital natives into leadership roles. There are about 10 primary journals and a few dozen websites that serve clinical content to gastroenterologists. In contrast, I searched for “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” on,  a social search engine for patient content. Treato found 583,000 posts for IBS alone! Patient agencies must deeply commit to patient-preferred channels, especially digital – the disrupting force driving pharma’s focus on patients as stakeholders. Is your agency’s leadership team steeped in traditional advertising? If so, it needs to shift. Many digital natives I know are younger. Many are minorities. Almost all express a more casual (but no less committed) approach to work. Does your agency cater to them? Has it integrated them into leadership? To engage patients when and where they are most receptive, work on making the answers to these two questions “Yes.”

4 Expand your team’s capabilities beyond marketing. Digital thinking isn’t the only competency you’ll need to excel as a patient-focused agency. Health educators and behaviorists are critical for developing informed strategies that can counter patients’ resistance to treatment and motivate them to take action instead. Your creatives, writers, and web developers should all get a deep grounding in health literacy – considering many patients read at a high-school level or lower. Those patients can’t inject themselves correctly if they don’t understand the instructions. Other new competencies to explore: a community manager, to credibly interact with and support patients in social media venues; instructional designers, who can adapt creative into actionable tools that support learning, and a patient access expert, to connect the dots between financial assistance programs and your agency’s tactics.

5 Walk in patients’ shoes. This may be the easiest – and most important – part of your agency’s transformation. It’s no coincidence that the best patient marketers we know have the greatest empathy for their audience. A person with cancer, or debilitating depression, or advanced diabetes is not just fighting a disease, Carden reminds us: “She is locked in an emotional battle within herself. Fear, anger, guilt, fatigue, and always a dash of hope intermingle as she tries to navigate medical terminology, a complex diagnosis, and doctors who seems uncaring … all while wrestling with the physical and cognitive impacts of her condition and treatment.” To connect with this complex consumer, start by nurturing your empathy. Read her blog. Join a Facebook support group for her condition. Ask friends who’ve struggled with similar issues to share their experiences. Volunteer. We’ve all been patients, so we all have an innate ability to care deeply about our audience. The more you and your team exercise this ability, the faster your agency will emerge as a patient marketing leader.


Jeff Greene (@Jeff_Greene) is a strategist, writer, speaker, and agency intrapreneur who has spent more than 18 years guiding clients into the digital age. He is partner, digital strategy lead at New Solutions Factory.

Ad Right Top


Extensive pharmaceutical business and marketing intelligence. For back issues, please contact

June 2019 Focus: Payer access, biotech/biopharma, DTC, rare diseases, and more!


Ad Right Bottom