by Jeff Greene, New Solutions Factory  (@Jeff_Greene)

When you get to work with lots of different agencies, as I do, you bear witness to larger patterns unfolding in the industry. These patterns can be hard for agency teams to grasp day-to-day, when they’re in the thick of client calls and Photoshop tweaks and all the other things agencies do to earn their keep.

Yet … we ignore developing trends at our peril. Ready or not, these six disruptive trends are shaping the healthcare agency landscape in 2015:

  1. Doctors are people … and therefore, they use digital. You might hang onto the belief that “physicians are different” or “cardiologists don’t use the Internet much.” But as living, breathing, US adults, they are just as connected as the rest of us. According to Pew Research Center, 87% of American adults (and 99% with household incomes of $75,000 or more) use the Internet. That should cover every doctor in America. Still, some healthcare agencies are struggling to win digital assignments and deliver them effectively. When AdAge looked at US agency revenue in 2014, it found almost 40% came from digital. In 2009, only 26% came from digital. Is your digital share of revenue increasing year over year?
  2. The era of the “campaign” is dead. Why are certain healthcare agencies struggling with digital? It could be because they’re stuck in the “campaign” era of marketing. Snappy creative concepts. Flashy journal ads with a clever twist. Unfortunately, today’s physicians are too busy (and too skeptical of pharma) to swoon for most journal ads. They want utility: dosing instructions, efficacy data, access to drug samples, pre-authorization forms. Increasingly, they’re finding all this content through digital channels—and clicking past the “campaigns” that get in their way. That’s why vendors from Veeva to Physicians Interactive to IMS Health are whispering in your clients’ ears with more productive ways to make use of modern channels. Do you deliver campaigns, or customer utility?
  3. Whoever drives the metrics wins. If your agency’s programs are causing website visits to spike ordatabases to mushroom or no-call physicians to raise their hands—and you can prove it—then you’ve got a bright future. Agencies that increase key metrics will be agencies that retain business. This effect is multiplied in pharma, which is finally paying closer attention to marketing indicators. True story: an agency we worked with built a very nice website for a pharma brand. When I asked the account lead for Google Analytics access, to come up with some data-driven ideas for the site’s next phase, I was told “another agency is handling that.” She wasn’t interested in the metrics at all! Unfortunately, her client was. A different shop was chosen to build the next phase of the website. Can you show clients how you’re driving program metrics?
  4. Bigger (though not necessarily better) agencies are ascendant. How many healthcare agencies have combined into larger entities the past couple years? A lot. Heartbeat Ideas, Guidemark Health, Cadient, Cambridge BioMarketing, Rosetta, Siren Interactive, and Group DCA are a just few that have recently gone through mergers. As pharma clients consolidate agency rosters, independent shops are having a hard time getting seats at the table. Meanwhile, their peers in the large networks are diversifying: agencies that once focused on professional marketing are adding patient divisions while traditional agencies are adding digital teams. It’s going to be tough for smaller, independent agencies to emerge from this crowd unscathed. How is your agency addressing roster consolidation?
  5. Talent is becoming harder to find and nurture. Nadexa Group’s Jen Selverian, a seasoned recruiter for healthcare agencies, tells me she’s seen a “significant uptick” in hiring needs since last October: “More agencies are competing for the same talent pool, along with content marketers and technology platforms. This means candidates are fielding more recruiting calls than before.” It also means agencies are vulnerable to staffing gaps, which can doubly impact client deliverables and employee morale. How your agency addresses this trend will have big implications for both culture and profitability. Will you staff up quickly and risk poor hires? Wait for the right people, even if it stresses everyone else out? Pair up with consultants and strategic partners? The talent disruption is likely the biggest one your agency will face in the coming years. How will you handle it?
  6. There’s a new kind of agency emerging … and it’s virtual. One way to address the talent gap is to dismantle the agency model altogether. Instead of being a physical entity—“an office with a cool break room and lots of people”—the agency could be a network of free-lance experts, based everywhere, expanding and contracting as needed. This is the “Hollywood model,” according to Robert Finkel, Principal/Creative Strategist at FreshBlood Health Market Consultants: “After being entrenched in the agency world for so many years, I came to realize that the classic agency model was far too cumbersome. It’s often bureaucratic, frustrating, and wasteful for clients. FreshBlood is really a hybrid model that combines the best aspects of a business consulting firm with those of a marketing company with serious creative firepower.” Strikeforce Communications takes a similar approach, which the agency describes in its 2015 Med Ad News profile as an “open-source structure.” I know several other agencies also exploring this path, aiming to stay viable despite threats to their businesses. All of these pioneers are challenging the definition of an agency, and perhaps, what clients will expect from their rosters in the future. How flexible is your agency’s structure?  

Jeff Greene is a strategist, writer, speaker, and agency intrapreneur who has spent more than 18 years guiding clients into the digital age. As partner, digital strategy lead at New Solutions Factory, Jeff inspires marketers to evolve their multichannel capabilities by thinking critically about the impact of digital culture. He’s the author of Speaking on the Side, now available on Kindle.