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We live in an era in which the narrative tends to overwhelm the facts of a given situation. And so it is in healthcare marketing, where the narrative that consultancies have claimed a huge share of strategy and digital business from traditional agencies received a borderline silly amount of play in recent months.

How silly? WPP felt the need to address it directly in a Q3 results report, stressing the threat posed by consultancies to the core ad business of the company and its ilk has been drastically overstated. WPP singled out an Advertising Age report as “wildly inaccurate,” claiming the trade publication’s digital marketing revenue estimates for consultancies were inflated.

There’s a question worth asking, given the raft of change in and around healthcare marketing: Is the trend toward consultancies fake news, or an actual thing happening in the world? Short answer: If it’s happening at all, no one party is eating another’s lunch, as numerous stories have phrased it. Yet.

In the biggest possible picture, the rise of consultancies in pharma and healthcare probably has less to do with a lack of satisfaction with current strategic or tactical partners as it does with a broader shift in the industry itself. In years past, imposing silos existed between functions: The head of sales could go weeks without talking to the heads of marketing or IT. Nowadays, there’s a recognition that in-house execs — franchise leaders, brand team minions, and everyone in between — need to think more like general managers than heads of a discrete unit.

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“The challenge these companies face is, ‘How do you keep the car moving when you’re changing the wheels at the same time?’ There are lots of moving parts. It’s not easy,” says Anne O’Riordan, senior managing director at Accenture Life Sciences.

You can forgive pharma teams if they’re overwhelmed by this new reality or are struggling to choose among the agencies, consultancies, and myriad other would-be partners offering to help. There is no single “right” partner — agencies do many things well, which were outlined in detail in the July 2017 issue of MM&M, devoted exclusively to the agency world.

With that large stipulation, here is MM&M’s first buyer’s guide to pharma, healthcare, and life sciences consultancies.

DO hire a consultancy if you…

…are attempting to make sense of terabytes of data

The perception they aren’t adept at wrestling mounds of data into a usable package is one that chafes large creative firms. But under oath or following the administration of a truth serum, agency executives will concede they have a ways to go on the data front.

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Consultancies see this as an opportunity, especially given the speed with which the data revolution is redefining pharma marketing. “Brands today are chemical compounds wrapped in data,” says Christopher Zant, a principal at Deloitte Digital.

…need somebody to take the wheel
The tension between firms and consultancies exists, it seems, mostly in the minds of agency execs, many of whom consider consultancies with growing pharma, healthcare, or life sciences practices an existential threat. However, consultancy practice chiefs seem genuinely baffled by that line of thinking. They express a willingness to work alongside any and all existing marketing partners (creatives, payer whisperers, and others) and freely acknowledge there are certain functions they fill less capably than others.

Given the multitude of tasks with which most brand teams wrestle, many need an individual or organization to serve as the point person. “The client used to be the one to glue all those pieces together,” says Brian Fox, a McKinsey & Co. senior partner, who leads the marketing and sales group within the company’s pharma and medical products practice. “One thing we do well is take that work off the client’s plate. We eliminate all the games of ‘telephone’ and make sure everybody’s clear on who’s doing what, so there’s no duplication of effort or dropped balls.”

…are kind of in a hurry

It’s well established, almost to the point of cliché, that pharma isn’t the most nimble of industries. In the new digital world, however, slow-burn marketing and data endeavors whose duration is measured in years have fallen out of favor. That’s why consultancies, with their geographic breadth and pockets of expertise in design, connectivity, and especially analytics, appeal to frustrated brand teams. They’re built to move, and move fast.

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“There’s this notion of sprints, these short bursts where we rapidly ideate, 

create, and then repeat,” explains Zant. “For clients who are used to formal campaigns and all the back and forth that goes into them, the idea of a sprint is really appealing.”

…want to reshape the customer experience

This isn’t a knock on the experiential capabilities of the agency world as a whole. Many firms have effectively embraced their shift from mere crafters of messages to creators of mini universes around brands and therapeutic categories.

Alas, many others have not, which is why pharma has started to give consultancies first crack at projects that encompass a range of tasks that may not appear to be complementary at first glance. “The agency difference used to be creation of top-down brand messaging. Nobody did that as well as agencies did,” says Larry Mickelberg, managing director at Deloitte Digital and a former partner and chief digital officer at Havas Health. “What companies need [from their partners] is management of a broad, cross-department function, shaped by touchpoints, HCP journeys, and so much more. The entire nature of the business has changed. It’s gone from messaging to that broad customer experience.”

Consultancies are also keen to position themselves as the best organizations to lead that particular charge. “It all goes back to the creation of value,” notes Akash Patel, managing director of Accenture Life Sciences. “Maybe a digital firm is trying to create an experience. Our role might be to fine-tune and scale that experience. We challenge the institutional dogma about how you create value in this ecosystem.”

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Don’t hire a consultancy if you…

…prize creativity above all else

Even consultancy higher-ups won’t go so far as to suggest their creative ability is on par with what most traditional agencies have under their roofs. That’s not to say consultancies haven’t quietly upped their creative game. Some, such as Accenture, have done so through acquisition. Others have attempted to do so via talent raids.

“Attempted” is an important distinction in that context. At the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in November 2017, FCB Global’s chief creative officer, Susan Credle, offered a warning to consultancies and anyone else about to embark on a talent-poaching spree: “You can’t just throw a bunch of creatives into a noncreative culture and expect them to be brilliant.” Mickelberg largely agrees, noting, “Within consulting cultures, maybe there’s a bit less understanding of creativity and communication. But we’re really strong with the nuance around it.”

…remain heavily invested – financially, emotionally, or otherwise – in DTC advertising

Consultancies can do many things, but it’s unlikely any of the big or small players can swoop in and give lift to a DTC push that’s treading water. However, larger-scale collaborations that inform marketing efforts are a different story.

“The answers to questions such as, ‘What kind of support does the sales force need to engage in the marketplace?’ are different than the ones from two or three years ago,” explains Tim Pantello, managing director at PwC and co-leader of the firm’s digital health offering, as well as a former managing director at Digitas Health. “You’re not hearing as many traditional commercial questions as you used to. Firms struggle to have skills and competencies in areas around pricing, contracting, and value.”

…want big ideas

The healthcare, life sciences, and pharma arms of major consultancies pride themselves on their ability to turn on a dime. Yes, these units are huge and geographically diverse. At the same time, though, most say they attempt to maintain a startup atmosphere.

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“It’s about continuously driving improvements, rather than building to some grand reveal down the road. Patients are on therapy at a given point in time. They can’t wait six or nine months for what they need,” says George Eliades, a partner in Bain & Company’s San Francisco office and leader of its healthcare practice.

That’s why in-house marketers looking for that elusive breakthrough might be most comfortable working alongside their longstanding agency partners to affect it. If you’re looking for agility — for instance, “interactive dashboards for a field team that work on your iPhone, which we can prototype in two weeks,” as Eliades says — consultancies might be the better fit. For overarching campaigns, firms remain more adept at filtering out the surrounding noise.

…aren’t inclined to stage an impromptu Hunger Games among your partners

As much as agencies and consultancies claim they’re elated to work productively alongside one another — presumably while sharing an end-of-week drink and humming “Kumbaya” — introducing a consultancy to the existing analytics, marketing, and strategy mix at a time when pharma budgets continue to tighten will inevitably heighten tension. That goes treble for instances in which consultancies are brought in by a company to evaluate the proverbial lay of the land.

“You only see real conflict [between firms and consultancies] when a client says, ‘Take a look at what we’re doing and let’s see if we can optimize our spending, let’s see if we can find some efficiencies,’” Pantello says. “That sometimes means certain relationships may be cut back or eliminated, and obviously that makes the situation a little more adversarial. Nobody wants that, but sometimes it happens.”