Agencies, get over your fear

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Steve Hamburg
Steve Hamburg

By now, we're all too familiar with the tectonic forces that have been reshaping the pharma landscape. The “patent cliff” was perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of this upheaval. Yet other forces could be felt rumbling beneath our feet. Digitalization. Globalization. Regulation. Obamanization.

For pharma, it continues to be a period of high seismic activity, with no end in sight. Many a company has been transformed. But what of pharma agencies? What's the reality on the ground for them?

Not surprisingly, these have also been tumultuous times for agencies. Despite the chorus of industry optimism, the traditional agency is facing considerable structural and economic challenges. The embrace of digital has been beneficial. Still, there is an ongoing quest to stay relevant and needed. Not to mention the ongoing challenge of staying profitable in a procurement-driven environment.

It wasn't long ago when agencies enjoyed uncomplicated success. A multitude of drugs was widely promoted, and budgets were consistently robust. With justification, pharma advertising was deemed “recession proof.” The ebullience of agency mood and culture reflected this. Maybe we weren't as cool as our consumer counterparts, but we enjoyed a measure of job security that they lacked.

That agency culture has changed. Swaggering optimism has given way to muted pessimism. An atmosphere of worry and trepidation has taken hold in our hallways and cubicles. There is a feeling, even on stable accounts, that you are only one or two mistakes away from a pitch. Doing no wrong is often prized over doing what's right.

There's justification for this state of unease. The duration of agency/client relationships seems shorter than ever, and more prone to painful and sudden disruption. Digital and even consumer agencies are encroaching on our territory. And the culture in general fosters a desire for constant change.

Some agencies seem immune to this downward mood cycle. (You know who you are.) And networks–which are hedged against market uncertainty– provide a protective haven for many a struggling agency.

For most, there is no quick fix for the dislocations our industry is going through. Disruptive change will continue to be the norm. Yet attitude is a potent force. How can agencies lift themselves out of the doldrums? How can they get their mojo back? Here are a few modest suggestions.

Fear is actually your friend. It's a supreme motivator. Acknowledge it, harness it, and let it propel you to a new place of excellence.

Treat every client interaction as you would a pitch. Think of every conference call and presentation as vital. Doing so puts you in a competitive mindset that intensifies the quality of your output.

Success cures fear, and success is born out of focus and hard work. Work harder and think bigger than ever before. The fruits of these labors will return a bit of swagger to your step, and swagger is infectious.

Develop an attitude of courage. Courage is a force that blasts through limitations and ignites the best, most adventuresome work. Without courage, there is no glory (nor awards, nor new business wins).

Will pharma advertising ever return to its halcyon days? No. The world is spinning too fast for that. But by embracing disruptive change–and even being energized by it–we may discover that, in today's pharma, there's a lot less to worry about than we might think.


Steve Hamburg has been chief creative officer at a number of agencies and networks.

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