The MM&M buyer's guide to boutique consulting services

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It's no secret that the big consulting firms have been acquiring advertising and design agencies, in an effort to attract more of pharma's marketing dollars. It's worked, to some extent. MM&M reported previously that a notable number of biopharma and medical device marketers are ditching their traditional partners and turning instead to consultancies, prompting the obvious question — why? 

Finances were a major factor, but so is efficiency. It's in that space that consultancies, particularly boutique consultancies, excel. Given the dramatic shifts seen on the healthcare landscape the last five years, brands are increasingly looking for partners — both agencies and consultancies — that are able to keep up with the rapid-fire pace the modern market demands. 

But how to know what's right for you? Here is MM&M's second buyer's guide to pharma, healthcare, and life sciences consulting services, this one focusing on the smaller end of the spectrum. 

Do hire a boutique consultancy if you:

1. Want an answer to a very specific challenge 

Clients have a veritable bouquet of consultancies to choose from, each bringing 
their own strengths to the table. ZS Associates, for one, offers expertise in life sciences and healthcare, but also focuses on helping clients succeed with customers in sales, marketing, and product development. 

“Very early on we kind of got the philosophy that you can't just leave behind a Powerpoint—whatever strategy you come up with has to be implemented and implementable, and therefore we kind of stayed behind to say ‘let's figure out all of the things we need to have to make sure the client implements it all the way to the end,' Pratap Khedkar, ZS Associate's managing principal, told MM&M

Khedkar also points to the firm's depth of domain experience, as well as its use of data and analytics to find the right answer. 

“You know the old joke about consultants — borrow your watch, tell you the time,” he said. “We're going to come in very objectively and have our own perspective based on the data that we see.” 

2. Need some outside sets of eyes

Mike Luby, founder and CEO of HCP Concierge, points out that his clients benefit from the external perspective a consultancy can offer. 

“A lot of times these [biopharma] companies have teams that are full of people who have come up through the organization, and they're all party to all decisions that went into this year's plan,” he said. “Having somebody go back and rethink through all of the assumptions and sort of challenge everything that people have taken as given” can be useful, he said. Modern challenges, like the opioid crisis, are requiring companies to rethink their strategies in entirely novel ways. 

“Even people with the huge depth of experience need to think very broadly and differently about how to do things,” he said. 

3. Find fee structures cumbersome

Ross Toohey, president and CEO of independent full-service agency 2e Creative, noted that the current climate means that the modern life sciences marketer is under pressure to be an expert in more areas, but with a smaller budget. He tells MM&M that he's seeing demand for expertise and the ability to grow brands, with more and more people turning away from value propositions that require cumbersome fee structures. 

“There's a conscious migration toward working where the data is, being closer to the bottom line, closer to gross and business performance, and those are generally capabilities that consultancies and consulting companies have brought to the table,” Toohey said. Agencies can no longer paint themselves solely as rowdy innovators. “Now it's about which ideas are going to help drive the bottom line.” 


Don't hire a boutique consultancy if you:

1. Seek a dyed-in-the-wool storyteller 

Make no mistake — demand might be tracking toward consultancies. But agencies, in this case smaller ones, bring some very specific skills to the table. Sue Katula, content director of StoneArch, an independent full-service agency, said the company excels in untangling knotty issues for its clients. 

“We're really good at content,” Katula told MM&M. “We're all about [taking] what can sometimes be boring, complicated healthcare and making it more accessible to people so they can make whatever health decision they're making with clarity and conviction. Whether it's a surgeon choosing what device they want to work with, or a new mom who's trying to choose a breast pump, we're all about telling that story in a way that they get the information they need, it's clear, it resonates, and whatever decision they make, they know they're making the right one.”

See also: The buyer's guide to pharma, healthcare, and life sciences consultancies

Katula points out that decisions revolving around healthcare are different than, say, buying a pair of tennis shoes. “They're important, they can be complicated, sometimes they're life changing,” she noted. “So who you choose to tell that story is really critical.” 

In sum, an agency can offer clients the comfort of knowing it really understands their space. Moreover, any agency partner should be confident that it can create content in a way that resonates with people — whether it's videos, websites, digital product launches, or brochures — and be able to adapt quickly to any circumstance. 

2. Think it'll guarantee agility

Firms and consultancies have a lot to offer potential clients, though both would do well to acknowledge the need for speed and agility. Agencies have always been considered essential, but should be 
careful not to rest on their laurels, advised Luby. “I think the whole idea of ‘when we're fighting for every script, fighting for every dollar, we need our business partners to have a mindset that's the same,'” he said. 

One thing boutique operations can bring is razor-sharp focus. Bigger companies tend to be generalists, said Khedkar, but the recommendations provided also tend to wind up on a shelf. “The perfect strategy that was not implemented has exactly the value of zero,” he said. 

Katula offered a similar sentiment, saying that individual attention is paramount to keeping clients happy. “The case with working with any sort of outside help is really helping [clients] see the forest through the trees, and identifying opportunities that maybe they haven't seen before,” she said. 

3. Don't want to drink the consultancy Kool-Aid 

To put it bluntly, said Toohey, brands may be moving away from their traditional partners because they're tired of the revolving door of talent. “They're sick of the bait and switch,” — the idea that “we'll attract you with the A team, and then knock you down to the C or D team,” he said. 

“The reason for that is a lot of people who made traditional agencies — a lot of the people that have made those companies great — have struck out on their own as experts and started consultancies,” he explained. 

But there's a lot of hype in the “consultancies are grabbing a large chunk of business from agencies” narrative. The majority of pharma marketers are sticking with their current agency partners. They're happy with the existing creative, strategy, and marketing they're getting. Agencies have also added new services, such as data science and machine learning, to their lineups. Moreover, many clients cite long-standing relationships as a reason for increasing their use of agencies.

And the lines are blurring. Companies that may have called themselves agencies 10 years ago now refer to themselves as consultancies, and vice versa. And many agencies have been bolstering their consulting practices.

In fact, there is a need for a reevaluation of the very definitions of “agency” and “consultancy,” said Toohey. The windup? The perennial caveat, buyer beware, applies as much here as it does elsewhere. 


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