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Larry Dobrow, MM&M: What is the current state of the so-called talent war in the agency world? What are the most active fronts, so to speak?

Lori Grant, Klick Health: Agencies should focus on the term “talent experience” rather than on “talent war” and provide candidates with a good feel for the agency experience they can have there. We started doing experiential recruiting a couple of years ago for this very reason: to give people a taste of Klick’s culture, introduce them to Klicksters, and help them envision what it would be like to work with us. People want to join inspiring, culturally rich workplaces that value and ignite their talent and allow them to work on things they are really passionate about. At Klick, we focus on culture and the employee experience and never take either for granted.

Ross Toohey, 2e Creative: Cultivating an agency talent profile in today’s market is simultaneously wonderful and infuriating. And things aren’t slowing down. From our perspective, there are really two major drivers behind it all. First, there’s the changing face of the workforce, where agencies are scrambling to adapt compensation, benefits, training, and cultural engagement to the evolved preferences of millennials. Slow-moving agencies with stale corporate cultures will continue to see key talent fleeing for more nimble, attractive environments. Leaning on higher compensation alone to attract and retain talent will both lure the wrong type of people and increase costs, and clients will pick up on that pretty quickly. Second, there’s the perpetually expanding universe of digital, and the resulting stresses it places on agencies to cram digital talent into an oddly defined box. With the proliferation of digital strategies, media, and channels, finding talent with the brain and muscle to be fluent and effective in the digital space is a mind-crushing task. Add to that any sort of fluency in regulated healthcare and it’s like discovering a Mickey Mantle rookie card in your grandfather’s tackle box. Recruiters know that.

Robin Roberts, Concentric Health Experience: The macro issues haven’t changed, because in this industry it’s always been a constant battle for good people. What has changed is that the process now has to move so much faster. Gone are the days of meeting a candidate half a dozen times. Now we have a very incisive vetting and interview process and can bring them in and evaluate their skill set much more quickly than, say, five years ago. Our onboarding process also enables us to ensure people hit the ground running. From a tactical perspective, we still see good mid-level account people and strategic planning as the most important — and challenging — active fronts.

Anshal Purohit, Purohit Navigation: It’s as active as ever. We’ve tried to stay on top of talent retention, as well as be open to alternative and nontraditional recruiting sources to find and cultivate the best teams. Remote staffing has also yielded success. We are focused on finding not just the best talent, but the best-fit talent for our culture and philosophy and intend to stay in front of this issue so as to keep it that way.

Didi Discar, Carling Communications: Many young professionals working in East Coast agencies jump around, leaving one healthcare agency for another every year or two. Taking advantage of the talent war, these creatives or client-services folks move for higher salaries, more responsibility, and a belief that the grass is greener at another agency. Carling Communications is one of few healthcare advertising agencies in Southern California, so we don’t face this pressure. The local labor pool generally lacks healthcare experience, so our challenge is to entice experienced agency talent to relocate to California. Identifying top talent is already a difficult task, and relocation can add to that difficulty. Our talent acquisition manager spends his days seeking out candidates who will be a great cultural fit and who can bring new perspectives and thinking to the agency. We put candidates through an intense vetting process because most new hires will require relocation packages. At present, 90% of new hires were personally recruited and hired because of their successful track record.

Lauren Wetmore, Create NYC: With the continued success and momentum of the healthcare industry, rising stars in the healthcare agency world have an edge. Talented individuals, especially those with more than five years of experience in account or creative management, are in high demand. This industry trend has made the idea of building a future at any one agency something of a rarity and something that is not necessarily valued by many agencies. A large focus for Create NYC is not only to attract top talent, but also to ensure they thrive in our culture. With a commitment from both sides, we’ve seen employees buck industry trends, putting down roots for a long-term career.

Becky Chidester, Wunderman Health: Healthcare agencies are in a race to add digital skill sets to their teams. The competition for this talent is only getting stiffer as the industry continues to expand and agencies find themselves competing against new players like Google, Facebook, and other consulting and technology companies. With rapid, continued growth in personalized marketing, we are looking for candidates who possess not only strong digital skills, but who also have a combination of skills — familiarity with data and technology platforms combined with an understanding of the multichannel strategies for crafting better user experiences.

Dobrow: What are some of the changes your agency is making in response to more heated competition for A-list talent, whether in terms of compensation or capabilities or anything else?

Toohey: The recruiting process doesn’t end when someone accepts an offer. In fact, it’s never really over. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wooing someone to join your agency and setting them up with a desk, then assuming they’re a done deal. At 2e, we’ve embraced an engaging cultural mission to drive change for brands that shape the world. We’ve created new programs to help team members learn, grow, and explore the world. Our VP of creative, Lynda McClure, recently launched a mandatory program where the entire agency is assigned a weekly creative challenge designed to encourage entrepreneurship and cross-pollination.

Purohit: As far as finding talent, we’ve added and successfully recruited from several nontraditional sources. Though training some of these folks requires a little investment, their intelligence and drive compensate for this. When it comes to staff retention, we have been actively working on offering such perks as work-from-home flexibility, as well as more leadership growth and participation for those interested. We’re also looking at things like office and building amenities, proximity to mass transit, office configuration for maximum collaboration, and other conveniences to ensure that our people have the most ideal situation given how much work they put in on a daily basis.

Wetmore: We position our corporate culture as a crit­ical component to our success, one that also pro­vides a competitive advantage. In 2016, we further developed it by collectively creating a “culture manifesto” and adding regularly scheduled off sites to ensure we connect often on both professional and personal levels. In addition to driving culture, 100% of our employees participate in a bonus program of 10% to 50% or more of their salary along with medical benefits, a 401(k), and a custom-made wellness benefit, among other perks. But perhaps the biggest game changer is our telecommuting policy, which puts employees in charge of managing their business and deciding the most efficient way to get their work done. Whether that is at a client site, a home office, or at the Create NYC office, the choice is theirs.

Roberts: Getting people in the door is what we see as the hardest part. Because from there, the culture we’ve created supports the rest. We’re willing to invest in people and where they want to go in their career. We work with people on flex schedules. We’ve designed a new space that blows people away and has plenty of spaces for fostering a community feeling. All of this supports our view that once you bring in good people, they’ll bring more good people with them.

Chidester: Beyond the chance to work with some of the most important brands in the world and competitive compensation, we recognize that to succeed as a business and a culture, we need to support both the personal and professional sides of our people. In 2016, we launched an overall talent strategy, You Time, which is dedicated to building a culture of openness and authenticity. The effort includes such initiatives as Because Conversations Matter, in which we ask man­agers and employees to go off-site and have an open dialogue about goals and what that individual employee needs to be successful. Cocktails and Conversations is a local event series that encourages networking and discussions around industry issues. Pass It On is a two-day empowerment workshop to support talented women across our network. Across all these programs, we have a single goal: to ensure we are supporting our team around the world both personally and professionally.

Discar: We challenge our employees to produce the best-quality work. Since many of our clients are geographically diverse, this can result in early morning or late-night client calls. To compensate, we provide perks and benefits — unlimited vacation, full-time concierge service to run errands, catered lunches, free workout classes, and, most importantly, plenty of advancement opportunities. We started the Carling Apprentice Program to cultivate talent among new college and business school graduates. The initial rollout resulted in two solid hires. CAP will be expanded to other departments in 2017. Another HR initiative was the Carling Special Forces Bootcamp, which built on the agency’s already-­successful onboarding program. It brings together new hires to discuss personality and adaptive styles and discusses how to have difficult conversations and be successful in a high-performance culture.

Grant: From the hiring side, we’re doing what we’ve always done. At Klick, we take a considered approach of always interviewing and hiring slightly ahead of need. When we find the right talent, we hire them. That means that both we and our candidates have the opportunity to take the time needed to ensure everyone is making a great decision. We’re also evolving with new Klick offerings that attract talent and clients alike. Case in point? Klick Labs serves as the digital innovation partner to a growing number of global biopharmas and has been featured on CNBC and Fox. Based on its popularity, we’ve built a Klick Labs component into our employee-onboarding program. Similarly, people are getting excited about what we’re doing with Klick Platforms’ approach to revitalizing omnichannel marketing programs using smart technology.

Dobrow: How might the possibility of ACA repeal affect the way agencies go about their business from a staffing or offerings perspective?

Discar: Carling prides itself on being able to provide free healthcare to employees. The ACA has negatively affected our small business by artificially capping our headcount due to increasing premiums, the cost of which the agency absorbs as an operating expense. If an ACA repeal were to result in lower premiums, the agency could redirect the savings as compensation for additional hires or bonuses for current employees.

Toohey: If anything, ACA repeal will alter the trajectory of evolution in the agency business, but I don’t think it’ll impact the velocity very much. We’re already an industry rocked by dynamic change. We’re used to adapting. ACA repeal will see focus and resources shift from more “traditional” pharma marketing efforts toward things like disease state awareness, clinical-economic value articulation, and consumer education. From an agency-staffing perspective, this means talent investments will favor strategy and planning functions, with emphasis on building scalable talent pools for creative and production.

Wetmore: Affordable medical coverage is one of the most-sought-after benefits by candidates. A repeal of the ACA will undoubtedly make this even more important. Since the agency was founded, Create NYC has been and remains committed to reimbursement of 80% of the entire cost of staff healthcare. In addition to medical coverage, we also place a large emphasis on health and wellness programs aimed at increasing our team’s overall well-being. We even go so far as to include wellness as a core success factor by which we measure employees. We’ve found that a happy, well-balanced employee will inevitably provide better output for the agency.

Grant: There’s a lot of speculation regarding the outcome of the proposed ACA repeal and it’s not especially helpful to add to the rhetoric. If repeal occurs, it will unlikely be a wholesale repeal. We will monitor the situation and will address and adapt to any changes if required. It’s an incredibly complex act to be sure, but at its core, it’s about patient protection. Interestingly, even though most people refer to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — PPACA — as simply the ACA, casting aside any reference to patient protection, it’s important that we as an industry always keep the patient top of mind.

Chidester: Focusing on better patient outcomes will be highly relevant, even if the ACA is repealed. The emphasis on preventative care and adherence will continue as the entire healthcare industry looks for ways to reduce the cost of care and provide more quality treatment. What this could mean for healthcare agencies is that the current focus on product promotion will evolve toward more targeted patient-support services. We could see a reduced need for brand and product messaging skills and a greater need for people with multichannel and behavioral science expertise — especially people with training for overcoming the inertia and inaction often seen in health as well as inspiring persistent healthy behaviors. At Wunderman Health, we continue to add such offerings as enhanced data mining, analytics, and strategic consulting to support the insights needed for these services. In addition, we are forging innovative partnerships with companies like IBM Watson, LifeQ, and various data suppliers that enable us to identify and understand patients by their risks, so we can tailor the most appropriate interventions.

Roberts: We don’t feel it’s going to have an impact. We didn’t see much upheaval when it arrived, so we don’t anticipate much upheaval should it exit. A greater impact on our agency has been the presidential election, which always makes clients more cautious in an uncertain climate both on spending and initiatives. The minute we passed Election Day, we saw that start to change.

Dobrow: How have your client relationships evolved during the current outcomes and social media era?

Chidester: As the healthcare industry increasingly focuses on outcomes, we are more fully leveraging our strengths in data and analytics to ensure our clients have the right insights to inspire action and healthy behaviors. We help clients build more robust and dynamic understandings of their customers based on predicted “moments of truth” and other actions they take around which we can deliver highly engaging content, services, and omnichannel experiences. And as a trusted partner, we help clients maximize their marketing spend. We use a variety of methods and tools to look at performance and track how well our creative assets and engagement models deliver. We optimize accordingly, shifting our creative output toward the topics and formats that resonate best.

Grant: We have always striven to ensure that our client relationships are partnerships as opposed to transactional relationships, which means we focus on outcomes instead of optics. The evolutionary curve doesn’t have so much to do with client relationships as it does with the full integration of data and communication layers along with the drive for efficiency and innovation required for today’s sophisticated clients. Our ability to match proven capabilities with evolving client expectations distinguishes us as invaluable for the uncertain but exciting road ahead.

Roberts: Client relationships have evolved in that it’s rare we see any client who isn’t held to metrics by their own management, so we need to support that. We have analytics experts in place who can converse with clients about how to measure outcomes on any given initiative and then use performance data to determine if an effort is working or not. This has elevated our relationship in nearly every case because it strengthens our collaboration as trusted partners. For social media, we just move much, much faster now. Clients understand that content can fast become yesterday’s news, so we have to deliver quickly and remain nimble enough to make changes at the drop of a hat. That speed of content to market has also elevated the level and frequency of client collaboration.

Toohey: Agencies like 2e are no longer viewed simply as idea producers. Clients now look to us as stewards and navigators, as pilots who navigate the seas of communications tools, technologies, and tactics while connecting market trends with their business objectives. Our relationships with individuals have grown stronger. Once brand managers find an agency they’re compatible with, they stick together for life. Our relationships with procurement have grown as well. In some organizations, procurement groups have successfully cracked the code of how to connect agencies with their internal clients for mutual benefit. We love those folks.

Discar: Social media has humanized relationships, providing a richer client-agency experience. LinkedIn provides optics into a client’s thinking and potential plans in a way that wasn’t possible several years ago. For example, you can gain valuable insight by observing a client’s current connections and who they are adding. If a client adds a competing agency to their contacts, this could be an early warning sign that the account may be in jeopardy. You’d want to initiate a conversation immediately to review agency performance and solidify expectations, and, maybe, pick up additional business.

Dobrow: What are the qualities that characterize the best agency-client relationships and how have they changed? What are the qualities that characterize the worst ones?

Purohit: These qualities have not changed at all. The best relationships have been those anchored on strategic partnership, trust, and openness. These relationships work because they allow us to think creatively on behalf of the brand and recognize that ROI is based not only on cost, but also on how far the dollar is stretched and on overall goal and metrics achievement. Conversely, the worst are anchored around cost-savings and scrutiny — a commodity-based agency view. While cost-efficiency is always an important component for agency evaluation, it rarely if ever makes for a healthy foundation for a long-term client relationship.

Discar: Human nature hasn’t changed, so the fundamentals of what constitutes a strong agency-client relationship haven’t changed. At its core, good relationships result when all parties work as true partners for the mutual benefit of the stakeholders. In the healthcare industry, this translates to the client and agency working in unison to improve the lives of patients through the healthcare professional.

Roberts: No matter the year, no matter the industry, relationships are and will always remain the most important aspect of business, and the best ones are built on trust, authenticity, and capability. For our leadership team, it is paramount to establish a long-view perspective to client relationships within everyone at our agency — at all disciplines and all levels. This approach ensures everyone, including our clients, are aligned on our collective priorities and are invested in ensuring team success.

Wetmore: The best relationships are built on a commitment to deliver, especially in less-than-perfect circumstances. Regardless of the deliverables, agency client partnerships that lack transparency and accountability are destined for rough patches.

Chidester: Best is an agency-client partnership built around a commitment — and permission — to experiment, learn, and take risks. In order to drive innovation, generate new ideas, and deliver meaningful customer experiences, agency-client teams must be willing to accept, learn from, and improve through failure. The best partnerships allow agencies to rethink how brands connect with consumers, leveraging creativity, data, and analytics to bring fresh insights on how to be most relevant and build work that achieves this relevancy. Worst is where there are silos among disciplines. While clients still have the need for discipline experts, the trick is to create a structure and culture where each agency works as part of one team.

Toohey: Our strongest relationships are with clients who treat us as an extension of their team, rather than as a vendor. It’s easy to forget that at the other end of the phone is a group of people dedicated to your business. Agency teams that feel connected and engaged tend to produce better work more efficiently. The worst client-agency relationships are those in which the agency is relegated to a costly production resource. It kills motivation and drives off talent.

Dobrow: What can agencies do to help address the pharma and healthcare industry’s image, perception, reputation — whatever — problem?

Chidester: The industry has taken a beating, especially over the past 12 to 24 months. Much of this is the result of a lack of understanding of the time and cost in getting best-in-class medical treatments to market. Opportunities around open-source development, shared data from machine-based learning, maturity in operating in a more transparent world, and increased understanding of the value of medication would do a lot to improve perception.

Toohey: There’s a real science to telling a clinical or economic value story in a compelling, believable way. Unfortunately, very few agencies excel at this craft — because until recently, clients didn’t invest much in it. As advisers for clients, agencies should reinforce ethical claims in creative. Unfortunately, the agency review RFP process is often calibrated to reward agencies pitching concepts with irresponsible claims.

Grant: It’s important to support the industry and provide client support and guidance as required. In the case of drug-pricing transparency, our CEO, Leerom Segal, recently wrote about the need for biopharma execs to educate the public, media, and policy influencers and foster an open, honest, and objective dialogue about innovation, investment, and public health to combat the irrational vilification of the industry and such culprits as rising insurance co-pays.

Discar: The public’s perception of our industry has been bad for years, but social media has heightened awareness of the negative actions of a few individuals. Agencies, as true strategic partners, must continue to act as the voice of reason and challenge clients to think about how their marketing actions will be perceived in the marketplace. It’s imperative that agencies understand the regulatory pressures being faced by clients so we can be sensitive to our clients’ pain points and help find solutions.

Roberts: Given strong capabilities and a deep understanding of the market, we’re better able to identify moves that may have a negative impact on the brand. With the right level of trust, you can be honest with clients about things that give you pause. This can go a long way in preventing a bad perception not only for a brand, but also for the industry as a whole.

Purohit: We can continue to encourage transparency and honest communication with HCPs, consumers, and patients. One of the most important dynamics we can help manage is the tone and intention behind market development and DTC and DTP communication, as these areas are often highly visible yet essential to the success of new brands.

Dobrow: What is your best-case scenario for the healthcare and pharma marketing business in 2017?

Chidester: In healthcare, the big game changer will be increased consumer cost-sharing. Some forecasts estimate that deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance will grow 40% over the next five years. Shifts in self-care and financial ownership will further empower consumers to take more responsibility for their health. The best-case scenario for healthcare marketers in 2017 will be, first, a true recognition of the role of the patient. This means an investment in new tools that truly help empower patients to manage their new responsibilities. The second scenario is activating digital healthcare professionals to help these empowered consumers. This includes going beyond brand promotion to support providers in all aspects of their businesses and patient care, including providing them with resources like education, analytics, and connectivity.

Toohey: Our core focus is connecting people with therapies and technologies that enhance life. We’d love to see trends toward patient education, engagement, and empowerment continue. It’s what we do best.

Roberts: One thing that was very exciting about 2016 was that we saw more innovation and fewer me-too products, which in turn led to faster FDA approvals. We’re hopeful that 2017 will see more of the same. One thing we’d like to see more of in 2017 is for more pharma brands to push for digital innovation. There are so many exciting things happening in the health space, from machine learning to virtual health apps. If pharma brands push to the frontier in their engagements with both doctors and patients, it could be a game changer.

Discar: We would like to see the industry normalize or increase investment for patients. Supporting innovation for better patient outcomes would generate additional business opportunities for agencies. Our agency will continue to encourage clients to think — and operate — as true commercial marketers.

Dobrow: And what’s the worst-case scenario?

Chidester: The worst-case scenario is that the industry continues on the path it’s on, looking at digital as an “add-on” exercise confined to delivering product messages via channels like emails and websites.

Roberts: Most agree that the new administration will likely be good for pharma, but if a worst-case scenario arises, it would be a rogue tweet from the White House that makes people skittish and sends stocks plummeting.

Toohey: A tax credit that incentivizes pharma marketers to invest more budget sending unsolicited faxes to doctors’ offices. Please, no.