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The creative conundrum and other dilemmas in big Pharma marketing

Posted by Martin Palin

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Oct 13, 2016 2:09:01 PM

There were three standout themes for health-focused PR agencies in the latest Pharma In Focus White Paper (Marketing in Australian Pharmaceutical Companies in 2015/16). They were creativity, procurement and quality.

First creativity. Boy, what a can of worms! Agencies say clients “place little value on creative solutions, preferring a tried and tested approach”. Well that may be the case with some companies. But agencies also acknowledge that clients “called for creativity in tackling problems”.

 So which is it? Unfortunately it’s both. And that’s the essential tension in trying to find a balance between being a “cutting edge” PR agency in a marketplace where the natural inclination of companies is toward “playing it safe and going for a more traditional approach which they know works and meets their needs.”

One problem is that no-one really has permission to fail. The obsession with KPI’s and quantifiable outcomes (also highlighted in the White Paper) over-ride the value of learnings that might be derived from trying something different.


I’d like to see companies assigning “creativity” ratings to specific briefs. Then they could make a call on what kind of tolerance they’ve got for accepting whacky ideas and trying new things on a case by case basis. “Out of the box” doesn’t suit every brief. But it does lend itself to some challenges better than others. I think it would be in the company’s best interest to make a considered call on what level of “innovation” they are looking for in a response. They could get sign off on this with their senior managers, regulatory people and legal teams in advance.

Stop laughing. Why not? Creative horses for courses in a sense.

Second, is the remarkable improvements in PR agency quality. The report says that “PR …companies scored an exceptionally high satisfaction rating from pharmacos, with 70% satisfied”.

Wow, that’s a great result for health-focused PR agencies. There is no chance that rating would have been as high 10 or 15 years ago. I set up Palin Communications as a health-focused agency nearly 20 years ago partly because most big Pharma marketers I spoke to then said their existing PR agencies were crap.

It’s great to see the whole PR sector raise its game with Big Pharma. It will mean increased budgets in the future, greater confidence in PR as part of the marketing mix, more interesting briefs,  more meaningful work for the PR agencies that know what they are doing and a larger pie for us all to compete for.

Third is the emergence of procurement.

I blame the global financial crisis for that.

I remember in 2010 some senior internal people started coming to planning meetings with my long term client. I’d never seen them before.  When I enquired via a quizzical look to my guy, the Marketing Director lent across and whispered “They’re from procurement. They’re really important now…”

That’s all fine and I see their emergence as an opportunity to argue my case that PR delivers tangible commercial value.

I just hope they let me do that.

I did spend half a day last year filling out someone’s online “e-Procurement” process that asked endless questions about hourly rates, staff seniority and disbursement practices. I was just a little surprised there were no fields that asked about outcomes, achievements and the extra-ordinary value we had added to that business over many years.

Anyway, I love procurement. They are great guys with a job to do. If you can’t demonstrate value and acceptable business practices then what are you doing running a PR agency anyway?

So there it is – a quick trawl through the latest PIF White Paper and some initial observations from a PR perspective.

I wonder what the ad guys thought of it?

Topics: Healthcare PR, public relations, pharma, PR, creativity, strategy


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