At the end of the summer of 2020, right around the time many healthcare marketers determined that COVID-19 would not prove the existential event for their businesses they had initially feared, companies went into hiring overdrive. Traditional brand minions, data scientists, UX specialists — if you had a marketable skill and some degree of interest in healthcare, you found yourself very much in demand.

Heading out of the summer of 2021, the industry’s need for brainpower hasn’t abated. To hear nearly every marketing-adjacent company tell it, in fact, the need may well have intensified. Impending back-to-work edicts and profound frustration over the lack of Black representation are creating a perfect storm in the healthcare marketing industry.

As a result, many organizations are stepping up efforts not merely to retain but to delight their A-listers, if not their B- and C-listers. The thinking is that the best person for a job is quite often the person who’s currently doing it.

The impending storm is fueled by any number of factors, especially the industry’s continuing lack of diversity. With most companies attempting to diversify their staffs, Black and brown professionals boasting significant healthcare experience, especially in the agency realm, are in high demand.

“We will see shifts of talent circling around to different companies,” says VMLY&R executive creative director Walter Geer. “But if agencies don’t figure out smart ways of keeping their talent, we’re going to have problems …. Diversity numbers, come January, are going to be a lot worse than they were last year.”

Despite increased effort and good intentions, Geer notes that “there are only two Black chief creative officers in the major holding agencies, about nine Black executive creative directors including me, and seven or eight black group creative directors.” Asked how the industry should go about addressing this upper-level diversity shortfall, he responds, “The simple fact is, when you walk into a boardroom or office or you get on a Zoom call, and you don’t see anyone that looks like you — whether you’re a woman, Asian, Black or Latino — your immediate reaction will be, ‘I probably don’t belong here.’ It’s a trickle-down effect. Seeing is believing.”

That’s a dilemma Aurora Archer, CEO of The Bellatrix Group, thinks about every day.

“We’re entering the most significant war for talent that we in the corporate sector have ever seen, independent of whether it’s the health or technology sector,” she says. “It’s across the board and it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Indeed, there are huge retention concerns prompted by diehards who refuse to accept the COVID-19 vaccine. Companies requiring employees to get the jab will likely push such individuals away, while companies not requiring vaccination might alienate existing people who fear exposure.

Geer says job applicants are inquiring about back-to-work schedules even before they discuss salary. “People want to be home. They don’t want to go back into an office again,” he says. 

On another level, the fact that nearly 700,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 has made people question the broader U.S. healthcare system and why it was unable to keep everyone safe. “Why were the least valued people in the system — aka our frontline workers and first responders — the ones who saved our asses, and not the highbrow executives in their ivory towers?” Archer asks. “The experiences we created, whether through agencies or pharma companies, failed the most vulnerable and marginalized because they were not inclusive and did not represent everyone.”

The message for healthcare agencies is clear, Archer believes. “You have to hold yourself accountable to truly understanding the lives and experiences of those you’ve been entrusted to serve, which means you have to step out of your white culturally dominated bubble, look around and connect and build relationships and community with those who look nothing like you.”

In 1978, according to Advertising Age, Black and Latino workers made up only 5% of the ad industry’s workforce. By 2016, it had risen to just under 6% — which is to say that, in 38 years, it grew by only a single percentage point.

Even boosting that ratio to 10% would be an achievement, says Archer. She urges agencies to spend more on educational programs so they can avoid “missing out on creativity, innovation and truly creating experiences that serve more than just a homogeneous group of individuals.”

“They’ll have to take a portion of their operating costs and start prioritizing the learning and development of their people. There’s a reason the advertising industry is lacking in diversity and cultural representation,” she adds. “But healthcare companies have a unique advantage here, because there’s nothing more personal and purposeful than supporting the well-being of humanity.”

At the same time, that overarching mission only supplies so much motivation. Agencies in particular need to hone their retention efforts not merely to build on it, but to distinguish themselves from any number of organizations with the same goals.

That’s why FCB Health Network might be onto something with Write It Forward, an initiative that aims to recruit, train and mentor writing talent from all walks of life for entry-level, science-focused copywriting positions.

“Obviously, we all know that talent in science and healthcare writing is in high demand, and that it’s very difficult to recruit for this,” explains VP, creative director Tamsin Yeomans. “We need people who can do the art and the science, and we’ve found that there aren’t really specialized trajectories in education that are tailored specifically to that skill set. So we decided to create our own curriculum and write the script ourselves.”

That particular problem existed way before COVID-19, but the pandemic exacerbated it, Yeomans notes. “People from all walks of life are questioning their career choices and are open to new experiences. The pandemic challenged a lot of people to reconsider what’s important to them.”

HR pros at medical marketing organizations shouldn’t despair, however. FCB EVP, executive creative director Salvatore Diana believes that COVID-19 has unleashed an explosion of public interest in the business, the likes of which have never been seen before.

“Over the course of the pandemic, the lay public has had a very fast education in healthcare,” he says. “Before the vaccines, people weren’t familiar with what the FDA was. But things have accelerated so much with people’s understanding of and appreciation for health and science.”

The first session of Write It Forward kicked off on September 20 and will run until December. Classes meet online and the 12-week program is fully paid at 40 hours per week. The first cohort consists of 20 external candidates from a diverse mix of backgrounds, plus 14 individuals who are either junior copywriters or transfers from other departments at FCB.

If successful, there will also be a spring session, says Yeomans. She adds that FCB Health has made the financial commitment to sponsor 20 external candidates next year. 

“While we highly encourage applications from historically underrepresented communities, it’s not to the exclusion of other diverse talents,” she says, pointing to parents who have taken a hiatus from their careers.

“Every participant is paired with a dedicated mentor on a team that has an opening for a junior copywriter,” Diana adds. “We consider this a preceptorship more than an internship because what we’re hoping is that these candidates we enroll will continue their careers with us far beyond those 12 weeks.”