To some people, the very idea of conducting the annual MM+M Career and Salary Survey in 2020 might seem superfluous. With more than 200,000 Americans lost to COVID-19, 30 million people unemployed, large swaths of western states on fire and the country reckoning with its legacy of systemic racism, it might seem small-minded to collect intel on salaries across the industry.

Fair enough. Still, the pandemic has shaken the industry snow globe so thoroughly that this year’s results reflect more than just salary trends. Indeed, the data show major shifts in the business as a whole and at the companies that comprise it — and many of those changes could be here to stay.

For one thing, COVID-19 has unleashed dueling economic forces. Back in February, pharma companies and agencies would have said that hiring and recruiting ranked among their biggest concerns. With unemployment at a record low, competition for candidates, especially those with A-grade digital credentials, was fierce.

In some cases, that’s still true. Many of this year’s respondents say the companies they work for are, in fact, actively hiring and that they see plenty of room for advancement.

But such results are set against the stark backdrop of widespread layoffs throughout the marketing universe. Market research company Forrester predicts that, due to the pandemic, as many as 50,000 ad agency jobs will vanish through 2021. And while it’s too early to say how any such trend would affect medical marketing, COVID-19 has scuffed recent revenue at many large pharmaceutical companies. It seems quite unlikely that this pain won’t trickle down to agency partners.

Among the nearly 900 industry professionals who responded to the 2020 M+M/AbelsonTaylor Career and Salary Survey, the average salary is $163,000 per year. For men, who comprised 43.6% of respondents, it is $187,000. Once again, to the industry’s great shame, women earn considerably less, with an average salary of $145,100.

At the same time, the discrepancy has narrowed. The average salary for women increased 2.9% over last year’s sum of $141,000, while the average salary for men plummeted 18.8% from last year’s $230,200. The overall salary figure fell 11.7% from last year’s $184,600.

Most 2020 respondents are seasoned veterans, averaging 16.8 years in the industry and 4.8 years in their current position. Their average age is 46. The largest percentage work at ad agencies (47.8%), while 34.1% work at pharma manufacturers. Roughly half work for very large companies, with revenues of $50 million or more.

By sector, 69.3% do some work in pharmaceuticals, 30.4% in medical devices, 27% in biotechnology, 15.5% in over-the-counter products and 12.2% in diagnostic products and equipment. Those toiling in biotech brought home the most bacon, with an annual salary of $174,100. The lowest salary sector was OTC at $147,000.

EVPs are the best paid ($292,600 average salary), followed by managing directors ($237,500) and CEOs ($226,300). Marketing coordinators earn the least ($49,000), followed by copywriters ($71,900), research analysts ($75,500), medical writers ($85,000), editors ($89,700) and media directors ($91,400).

Relatively few respondents — just 8.6% — report that they work on commission. Those who do earn an average of $66,900.

With 2020 creating so many unknowns, the prevailing mood has been one of fear. According to survey respondents, this emotion appears to be cascading beyond the usual “What if my agency loses a major account?” angst that has always dogged agency employees.

“For the first time, I’ve seen pharmaceutical companies unable to access the healthcare professionals they sell to,” says Paulette McCarron, SVP, client lead, Rx at Havas. “And those healthcare professionals, the private physicians taking huge hits, are operating with their own financial anxiety. They used to work in a recession-proof business and now, depending on their specialty, they’re looking at reduced revenue and even laying off staff.”

That, McCarron believes, means the industry has to find new ways to reach them, with methods that are both more effective and more empathetic. She’s confident that the entire ecosystem will eventually discover new and better ways to partner with healthcare providers, helping them support patients as they adjust their business models. But for now? “The whole thing is turned upside down,” she shrugs.

No wonder so many respondents are unsure of where they stand in the paycheck pecking order. Four in 10 feel they earn less than their peers, while 46.2% say they are paid more or less on par. A mere 13.2% believe they make more. Women, well aware they are underpaid vis-à-vis their male counterparts, are more likely than men to describe themselves on the losing end of the pay scale — 44.3% to 36.1%, respectively.

They’re not wrong — and the gender pay gap widens as titles get loftier. Women at the director level and above earn $177,900, while men at the same level earn $212,200. These women see less room for advancement and are the likeliest of all groups, at 49.3%, to say they are paid substantially less than their peers.

Those gender discrepancies somehow get even worse in the realm of incentives. Bonuses are the industry norm: They’re received by 68.4% of respondents, with an average bonus of $34,100. But men’s bonuses average $45,400 (with a survey high of $900,000) and women’s bonuses average $24,918 (with a high of $400,000).

Given the looming sense of uncertainty, it’s not surprising that just 23.8% of respondents say they plan to look for a new job this year, down a bit from 25.1% in last year’s survey. By category, those working in managed care are most likely to be job-hunting, while those in dental products and medical devices are least likely.

The seekers are increasingly aware that one of the major factors in previous job searches — geography — matters less than ever. With the ability to work remotely now offered by 80% of employers (up from 63.8% last year), regional details such as Los Angeles’ long commutes or Manhattan’s overheated real estate market are largely beside the point. People can work anywhere without having to pack up the family. 

“When I took this job a few years ago, I sold my house and moved from another state. Now, even though I’m right down the street from my office, I’m working remotely,” says a marketing manager for a large pharmaceutical company based on the East Coast. “I might as well be in San Francisco. I’m happy here, but I realize the next time I do look for something new, I can do it without physically relocating.”

Even given those changes, it’s worth pointing out that most respondents love their jobs, with 29.3% describing it as thoroughly satisfying, and 53.3% saying it is generally gratifying.

That’s roughly on par with last year’s findings. Even more encouraging? Despite the upheaval, close to 60% believe the chances of advancing their careers at their current company are either good or excellent.

That happiness isn’t universal. More than 10% of VPs of sales, sales managers, group supervisors, copy supervisors, medical directors, management supervisors and account supervisors say they don’t find their jobs at all satisfying. Conversely, more than 50% of production managers, advertising sales and sales managers are very content. It’s still good to be king: CEOs are the most likely, at 66.7%, to say they love their jobs.

Havas’ McCarron is optimistic that better times, in the form of restored contentment and stability, lie ahead. After all, as she points out, some companies and agencies have been impacted by COVID and some barely at all. Too, she notes that healthcare in general plays a starring role in soothing a pandemic panicked planet.

“When people have a genuine affinity for healthcare and want to help? They will never be unemployed,” she explains. “There is always a shortage of people with this skill set. And right now, there’s the chance to create an entirely new way to reach healthcare providers.”

View last year’s Career and Salary Survey results.