Healthcare marketing agencies and consultancies have had their hands full managing the coronavirus’ seismic impact on their business. But based on data compiled in the pandemic’s early stages — and bolstered by anecdotal reports from leaders at the top 100 firms — they appear to be handling it with aplomb.

That resilience and adaptability will serve them well as marketers look to re-engage in a medical system that’s been transformed by telemedicine, not to mention a life sciences industry that’s retooling for virtual everything.

Every year MM&M surveys North American healthcare marketing and communications firms and health-focused consultancies to select its Top 100. This year’s questionnaire was launched January 29, about a week after the first reported case of coronavirus appeared on U.S. shores.

Business performance

The top 100 entered the year buoyed by double-digit revenue momentum. Billings for the top 100 agencies rose nearly 16% last year to $5.8 billion, from $5.1 billion in 2018, while staff count inched up 2% to 29,753.* 

And they carried it forward. If marketers were having trouble adjusting to a landscape suddenly disrupted by COVID-19, their Q1 performances didn’t show it. Despite pandemic turbulence that saw medical congresses and in-person rep details grind to a halt, an overwhelming majority (91%) said their business was up in Q1 2020. 

Distilling that further, 40% of respondents said their 2020 business is up by 0-10% vs. the same period last year, 33% said it’s up by 11%-25% and 14% said it’s up by more than 25%. Only 12% reported flat performance, and only 1% said business is down. (Totals exceed 100% due to rounding.)

That’s all the more remarkable given quarantine’s negative impact on marketing and event staples such as HCP-facing speakers’ bureaus, dinner meetings and product theaters. Those agencies with a heritage in such activities are in the process of converting them from physical to virtual.

Revenue changes shape

In other words, agencies aren’t losing out from COVID, or so they claim, and their business isn’t drying up. It’s just shape-shifting.

“The most significant COVID-related impacts have been shifts, rather than reductions, in scopes,” explains Interpublic Group’s Helene Yan, chief client officer, health, who says the network is helping biopharma and med-device clients “as they reset timing, reimagine launches and move from in-person to virtual meetings, details and telehealth platforms.”

Omnicom Health Group CEO Ed Wise adds that “COVID’s pivot-to-digital has actually replaced any reductions” in client marketing budgets.

Indeed, some medical education firms saw a spike in demand for digital services as the list of medical congresses canceled or postponed due to coronavirus grew. A poll MM&M fielded in March confirmed that 46.2% of healthcare marketers said they had dialed back 2020 budgets but that, rather than a sure sign of future belt-tightening, the finding was likely indicative of a “forced evolution” away from traditional in-person approaches — such as field reps and events, which are often the priciest line items.

Even the venerable product launch meeting has gone virtual. As coronavirus swirled, a number of biopharma companies moved ahead with drug launches. In doing so, they adapted their multichannel promotional plans to include remote detailing, sampling and peer-to-peer interactions to ensure physician education, along with digital promotion to augment non-personal promotion.

Moving forward, it’s anyone’s guess to what extent the pandemic playbook will endure once the dust settles, but it’s likely that launch plans — both on the HCP and patient side — will feature a heavier reliance on, and a more personal approach toward, non-personal promotion (NPP). And to the extent some companies were caught flat-footed when coronavirus shut the door on physical engagement, it’s a good bet that those firms will be all the wiser for it and have virtual contingency plans in place.

Billings breakdown

All of which raises the question: Just how big of an adjustment will the move to virtual be? 

Our survey offers some clues. Take a look at how the agencies’ revenue mix changed last year. Sales materials rose from the fifth-biggest source of income to the third, and promotional medical education leaped from ninth to fourth. 

That kind of adjustment reflects a stepped-up emphasis on the HCP, but perhaps the biggest proof point is where agencies derived the lion’s share of their 2019 revenue: professional digital/web/mobile. While MM&M hailed 2018’s “pivot to the patient,” marketers seem to have course-corrected in 2019. This also suggests that teams had already been sourcing virtual engagement methods and tech solutions to reach HCPs — and in a big way — prior to COVID-19.

In terms of what fell in importance, you guessed it: All things consumer. Besides a dip in consumer digital/web/mobile, which relinquished its first-place spot to professional digital/web/mobile and dropped to second, consumer print and consumer broadcast fell from seventh place to ninth and from fourth to eighth, respectively, in the pecking order of 2019 billings.

Trends expected

No one in the industry could have anticipated the events of the last several months. That said, the overreliance-on-the-sales-force writing was on the wall, so to speak, long before COVID-19 turned medical marketing on its ear. 

The last couple of years has seen a shrinking in the percentage of those who were either on the fence or foresaw a likely continuation of the status quo. When asked about the future of healthcare/pharma advertising and marketing this year, 51% said they “expect to see” or “very much expect to see” decreased reliance on the sales force in 2020. 

The other 49% said it “might” happen or was either “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to happen. By comparison, last year only 42% said they “expect” or “very much expect” to see a move away from sales forces.

“Without question, many health companies in the past have depended on conferences and individual sales details to communicate with HCPs,” notes Havas Health & You global CEO Donna Murphy. But, she predicts, technology is poised to become a much stronger part of how we engage.

To wit: In this year’s survey, 68% of agencies said they expect to see more programs that go “beyond the pill.” COVID-19 has inspired a wave of innovation. We could very well see digital therapeutics and pharma companies ramp up partnerships again as the industry looks to realize its role as facilitator of patient engagement.

If Phase I of the industry’s crisis response was marked by the big shift to virtual, Phases II and III will entail cleaning up the mess of chronic disease patients and others who have suffered from improper monitoring and decreased adherence during the pandemic, as well as re-engaging with doctors when in-office visits begin a return to pre-coronavirus levels.

While the crisis has undoubtedly accelerated the industry’s transformation agenda — and been an incredible test of its resilience — agencies will need to tap fresh reserves of adaptability and agility moving forward as they help customers navigate the changed healthcare system and facilitate recovery efforts. 

*These revenue and workplace totals are based on data that companies submitted as part of MM&M’s annual agency review and reflect the agencies in the Top 100. Data is taken from the annual agency review, supplemented by estimates made by the MM&M data team, and includes numbers from certain firms that had been unavailable in 2018. Revenue and employee numbers for parent companies and certain network-owned firms were accounted for to prevent double-counting in these totals. Billings breakdown and trends includes data from non-Top 100 firms as well.