Is it time for pharma ad agencies to reboot?

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Global advertisers are cutting their ad spends — particularly when it concerns digital ads, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Procter & Gamble is cutting its digital spend by more than $200 million. Almost simultaneously, WPP announced declines in net ad sales with no prospects for growth in 2018. 

It's no different when it comes to pharma ads. According to Kantar Media, in 2017, total pharma ad spending dropped by nearly 5% — the first drop since 2008. 

Some media experts are baffled by this pullback. After all, the economy is good, we have a friendly FDA, plenty of important and innovative molecules, and despite his threats, the president has done little more than jawbone drug pricing. So why cut back now?

The popular thought is that digital doesn't deliver the returns everyone expected. But the problem isn't the media, it's us. Pharma agencies aren't delivering the financial return to clients the way they used to. They're failing in two ways.

First, many pharma agencies have forgotten why they're in business. They've departed from the most obvious mission statement an agency should have: “We exist to sell our client's products.” 

Agencies don't exist to provide tactics, be they digital or print. Their function is to connect their client with the healthcare community and focus on product attributes. 

When it comes to boosting the bottom line, I'll bet on a big idea against any number of banner ads. Years ago, when we originated patient guarantees and indigent patient programs, we reshaped the market in ways that helped improve healthcare and expedited healthcare delivery. I'm not sure what “ask your doctor” messages accomplish in the long run.

Second, the Mad Men mystique apparently convinced many healthcare agencies to forget our heritage — promoting products and services to healthcare pros. There's something odd about calling patients “consumers,” as if they're a pack of moms selecting cereal in supermarket aisles. 

Patient preference may be important when it comes to over-the-counter remedies, but antineoplastics are more complex than antacids. The risk of a purely patient-centric focus is that physicians end up as irrelevant. 

Consider “right-to-try” legislation, which is based on the idea that patients with terminal diseases for which no approved treatment exists should be able to demand participation in clinical trials of unapproved drugs.

It's a compelling idea. But “right-to-try” has some significant downsides. It strips the prerogative of prescription from doctors and distorts the scientific rigor of trial design. 

Allowing patients in trials when most will almost certainly not benefit helps no one.

Pharma companies are still free to allow patients to participate in trials, but they can't be forced to include them.

Is this a sign our obsession on direct-to-patient advertising is not permanent? Does it suggest the current downturn in digital spend is a trend and not an aberration? Might it even hint that as agencies, we will return to developing ideas that improve medicine while boosting the client revenue curve? Let's hope so.

Sander Flaum is a principal at Flaum Navigators.

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