The Top 40: Natrel Communications

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Though Natrel Communications has gained significant new business, revenue last year remained flat at $7.55 million compared with $7.62 million in 2004). Chairman of the board David Nakamura attributes this to product budget reductions.

Sanofi-Aventis' Amaryl (for diabetes) was one of the agency's biggest brands, but after its patent expired, the company stopped promoting it. However, Natrel picked up business from Arrow International for AutoCAT 2 WAVE; Aureon Laboratories for Prostate Px; King Pharmaceuticals for Intal; and Lupin Pharmaceuticals for Suprax. American Standard, Cornerstone Pharma, and HealthLogiX all awarded work, and Natrel also works pro bono for PG Chambers School.

President Allan Trent says winning Intal, Prostate Px and the Arrow International business gave the agency momentum last year. That momentum continues this year, and Nakamura expects aggressive growth. New business wins include medical education work for biotech company United Therapeutics, a dermatological product from Indian company Lupin, product Gelclair for the treatment of oral mucositis for EKR Therapeutics, Daiichi Pharmaceutical Corporation's Evoxac for dry mouth, and Novartis' Benefiber.

Nakamura considers last year's highlights to be making up lost revenue and maintaining staff to pull in new business. Trent says an internal evaluation led to a third achievement. “We had to look in the mirror and see what Natrel was all about,” he says. “Holding companies are making such big deals, we can't compete. We saw us fitting with midsize and specialty pharma. That's how we started to get more pitches and win more.”

The agency's biggest challenge now is assimilating new accounts while maintaining and not losing focus on continued growth. Trent adds that it's also challenging to find new ways to go after business.

“Whatever it takes—existing alliances, new alliances. You've got to be creative about it. It's like a rollercoaster. I have a blast sometimes going up. Then you hit those dips, [and] it's not so much fun. You have to remember it's going to go up again. It's a wild ride. If it wasn't fun, we wouldn't be on the ride to begin with.”

Trent notices clients are spending less and expecting more. “Budgets have become leaner, and we have to work smarter with less money,” he says. “Clients want to see a return. Competition [is not just] in trying to get business. You have to be very involved in each client's business. Today, you're accountable for every dollar.”

According to Nakamura, the industry looks at its representatives differently and expects increased efficiency. “[Companies are] encouraging agencies to get them more face time or to communicate our message in a shorter time,” he says. “Because of growth of sales forces, we have to make sales reps very efficient in message delivery. [We're] fighting for a limited amount of physician time with a greater number of people trying to capture that time.”

Consolidation is a two-edged sword for Nakamura. “Consolidation at large companies will create some opportunities for smaller brands as they divest. In some cases, they acquire second-tier companies, which may hurt us. Plus, it's getting harder to find new products.”

Client staff turnover can also be problematic. “No one is settled in a job for 10 or 20 years any longer,” Trent says. “It puts us in an awkward position. They want to bring in their relationships. Making employee changes often puts agency relationships in a little bit of jeopardy. It can hurt you or help you.”

Trent believes reputation management is important for the industry. “Pharma still has mud on its face,” he says. “Informing doctors and patients about medicine is our job. We have to continue to present ourselves in a positive way.”

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