“I don't want to sound like Miss Pollyanna, like everything is great and we're hiring like mad and we're winning all this new business,” says, Draftfcb Healthcare president and co-CEO Dana Maiman, sounding ever-so-slightly like Miss Pollyanna. “But things have been very good.”
Palio president Mike Myers' tale is more typical. “We were on pace to blow the doors off, then the wheels fell off the economy.”
And sometimes a defense is the best offense. “I'm trying to be the kid in class with his head down, working hard and trying to take care of my clients,” says David Paragamian, president, Euro RSCG Life LM&P.
Sadly, some shops, like KPR, didn't make it. “It was a scary moment,” says CDM Princeton president Kyle Barich, of his sibling firm's closure, “but we're not big on falling prey to fear.”
It's not just the economy that's challenging agencies. There's also the dreaded “C”-word (consolidation, the agency kind).
“Five years ago it was rare to see pharma companies approaching holding companies for a pitch,” laments Larry Star, chairman and CEO of Harrison & Star Business Group. “It's certainly a different game.”
And procurement remains a big part of the jumping-through-hoops game. “If creative strategy is constantly demanded, and we're treated as just suppliers, there's a big disconnect,” notes Joseph Kuchta, president and CEO of Goble & Associates.
After all, says AbelsonTaylor CEO Dale Taylor: “Cutting a couple of bucks off our rate doesn't save nearly as much money as making the process more efficient.”
A big roadblock to growth is the choking of approvals. “So many clients got broadsided by the FDA,” says Susan Miller Viray, partner, The CementBloc. “Some brands have gotten good news from the FDA, that, frankly, they should've gotten last year.”
Andrew Schirmer, EVP, managing director, McCann HumanCare is always braced for such hurdles. “You don't have a year that goes by that we don't have a big [read: ‘bad'] surprise with a product.”
Brendan Ward, creative partner at Regan Campbell Ward • McCann, takes a bird's-eye view. “If the pipelines catch a cold, we catch pneumonia as an industry.”
Almost without exception, agencies are turning themselves digital in anticipation of their clients' future needs.
“I think there will be a day when we won't do any print,” boldly predicts AgencyRx managing partner Michael Schreiber.
But the challenge, according to Larry Mickelberg, EVP, strategy and new business at Digitas Health, is: “How do you get scale without television?”
While many toes are being dipped into social media, some remain skeptical of current strategy. “Who's going to follow (say) AstraZeneca on Twitter?,” challenges Bill Drummy, chairman and CEO at Heartbeat Digital. “No one wants to do that…not a consumer. A lot of that stuff is just not well thought out.”
But most agencies agree that with adversity comes opportunity. Some, like Blue Diesel president Kelly Gratz, even relish it. “When we're talking about economic uncertainty, it kind of hits our sweet spot.”