Photo credit: Erica Berger

In apportioning their media budgets, pharma companies continue to straddle the line between new and traditional strategies. At this media-decisions roundtable, moderated by MM&M’s Larry Dobrow, industry leaders explained why, even amid the enthusiasm for all things digital, such tried-and-true channels as TV and print remain integral to their promotional plans.

With so many media channels to choose from, healthcare marketers face some challenging decisions on what to prioritize.

“A lot of clients want to introduce the digital space, but there are so many regulations in pharma,” said Kimberly Hutton, senior account executive at Target Health. “We want to introduce new ways of targeting the patient, but we must meet them where they are.”

And those priorities can often depend on what stage the product being marketed is in.

“If it’s in the early stages and there’s little awareness, you need more mass media,” noted Janet Barnard, group account director at Omnicon Media group. “If it’s a mature brand everybody knows, we might focus more on action-oriented media.

“Basically, the research people value their brand health metrics, while the marketing-science people say it’s all about ROI,” Barnard continued. “And yet, when brand health metrics go down, sales usually go down. So where we recommend you spend is all about creating that balance.”

The gathered leaders cited balance in other ways, as well. Novo Nordisk’s Brian Gartside, senior manager of patient brand marketing for Tresiba, feels the decision starts with the patient journey.

“You look for those teachable moments along that journey and where you can intercept them,” he explained. “You can do mass reach, but if people aren’t ready to be receptive, it will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, if you go too targeted, you might not get the reach you need.”

“That’s why audience research is so important,” added Mocumo healthcare strategist Jennifer Greufe. “It helps you balance the target audience’s predisposition to certain media channels.”

Frequency and targeting are always part of the mix. “Some vendors won’t allow you to buy only one channel — you have to buy, say, the tablet and TV,” said Hutton. “But it makes sense to hit the patient in all those different ways.”

Beth Wilson, associate director of consumer marketing at Celgene, said it also pays to test creative assets in different places. “Sometimes an awareness ad works better in a programmatic space than a disease state ad in an endemic.”

Meanwhile, Gartside lauded the precision of digital targeting, saying, “They can figure out what sites an individual is on, what TV they watch, where they shop. They’ll know if a person was exposed to TV plus print or to digital only. Then they can figure out, did they convert?”

However, if you have several digital creatives out at the same time, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which the person saw.

“So you must balance the sophistication of the data with some gut feel,” continued Gartside. “It’s part art, part science.”


“When we’re trying to reach small segments for specialty drugs, it’s important to understand a day in the patient’s life,” said Charlene Leitner, healthcare practice lead at Iris Worldwide. “Where are they at 6 a.m.? When are they on their way to work? If you know them well, you’ll succeed in the marketplace by meeting their needs.”

Echoing those sentiments, Michael Byrnes, EVP of sales at Rx Edge, added, “Gone are the days where you’re working with a GERD product that reaches 20% of the population. You’re dealing with plaque psoriasis and it’s 2%. So the evolution for our business has been making programs as targeted as they can possibly be.”

Barnard noted that it’s getting easier to send out specific messages. “Programmatic is telling us a very different story than the one we learned in the traditional media-buying process,” she explained. “We’re buying audiences instead of publications.”

And technology is moving ahead quickly. Bill Liebman, president of Retail Intelligence, which tracks store-level retail sales, mentioned a smart ad that uses eye-tracking to see how people interact with it. “If it noticed that people were paying attention to a certain element in the upper right corner, they’d build the ad around that. The ad actually evolved. It’s a bit scary, but kind of cool.”


No matter when you turn on the TV, you will likely see tons of pharma ads. Drugmakers continue to devote the lion’s share of their budgets to the small screen. One might ask why that is given all the other great platforms to target consumers. The answer? It’s essential to that multichannel strategy.

“It does cost a lot and there is waste, but TV brings mass awareness,” explained Wilson. “To get smart about it, you can partner with companies that do the measurement and home in on where your placement should be. You’ll never get as targeted on TV as on digital or a placement in a doctor’s office, but there are ways to reduce the waste.”

Gartside also championed the medium: “Thirty-five-year-olds say they DVR through all my commercials, but TV is still very important to the 55-plus consumer. News and game shows don’t tend to get DVRed through. You can easily ignore a website banner, but if you’re watching Family Feud, chances are you’re going to stay tuned for the commercials.”

Greufe touted TV’s specific role in the home. “It’s very different from the role played by mobile ads or physician-office media,” she noted. “It’s a different ask of the patient.”

“It affects every other media channel you’re doing,” added Barnard. “If you pulled TV, other things aren’t quite as wonderful — like search. Something had to plant the seed in their head to go search that brand term.”

Of course, advertisers who rely on TV must still have other tactics in place.

“A powerful TV ad gets your attention,” explained Liebman. “You must continue that storyline into the other ways you deliver messages to the consumer.”

Gartside emphasizes good creative.

“It’s a busy world and people aren’t dying to see our ads,” he said. “You need to challenge the creative agencies to find some kind of insight-based idea that connects with that individual personally so they’ll remember it when they visit the doctor or go online.”


“People think programmatic can do it all,” said Byrnes. “Not true, especially not in all demographics.”

The complexity seems to be slowing progress. “We must understand the data behind programmatic so we know its proper role and what we can expect from it,” Greufe added. “That will help us figure out where it best fits within the media mix. It can’t fix all problems. Especially in pharma, with the CPM, it won’t necessarily deliver your highest ROI.”

Hutton agreed, saying, “We need to understand what programmatic does to know it makes sense for your brand.”

And sometimes that comes from outside. Gartside relies on his media-planning agency to evaluate one vendor versus another. “That’s their full-time job and they have very explicit criteria,” he explained. “You have to trust them.”

Wilson points out that it takes time to get conversion data for digital.

“You decide on your media plan, watch it, make optimizations, but the readout doesn’t come for seven or eight months,” she noted. “So we rely on the things that worked for us in the past, and take a small portion of the budget to test other things.”

“The key to cutting edge is figuring out the right time to jump in,” offered Byrnes. “Come in too soon and you could spend a lot of money just to help build their business. Come in too late and it might have passed you by.”

And while many believe print’s power has passed, it remains an important medium to healthcare marketers, depending on target audience.

“There’s something to be said for having tactile materials — a page you can rip out and take to the physician’s office,” said Greufe. But there are other ways of tracking results — and audience numbers.

Hutton mentioned the “hidden survey” to track data. “The brand can see who saw the ad and then filled out the survey.”

“We’ve essentially sold our pharmacy network business as a print alternative,” said Byrnes. “That’s because the things that apply to the decision-making process when you’re reading, say, Good Housekeeping, apply to our business as well. The only difference is we can actually track it. That’s an advantage.”

“If you want to know audience numbers,” added Byrnes, “you could start with the retailers’ financial statements. Take the two largest, CVS and Walgreens. Their statements tell you that about 14 million people walk through their doors every day. Roll that out across 50 or so retailers in our network and the numbers get really big. We know the top U.S. stores for insulin sales, and we overlay that with test strip sales. We have actual numbers to show what that means in terms of diabetes patients.”

Liebman has noticed that in-store programs can lift refills for advertised brands. “If consumers drift away from their brand to OTC, they’ll see, say, an ad for an [Rx] eye-care brand in the eye-care area,” he noted.


Netflix is in more houses now than DVRs. The roundtable panelists recognized this specific platform’s potential impact on healthcare marketing efforts.

“On TV we can insert our commercials where we want,” explained Leitner, “but with Netflix we don’t have that luxury. Netflix is much more targeted, so you lose mass reach. We need to keep an eye on it.”

While Netflix’s original programming changes things, Gartside says cable TV isn’t going anywhere. “Lots of people are plunking themselves down to watch cable news or the latest episode of Tiny Houses. We won’t have all the opportunities we had in the past, so we must get smarter with other targeting.”

Liebman suggested brand integration is another way to reach consumers on Netflix programming, though he conceded this could be more challenging for the pharma sector than others.

“We can build data about what target audiences are watching on Netflix or any subscription-based channel and reach them on their iPads and mobile devices,” Greufe said. “There will always be different ways of doing things. We just have to evolve with it.”


Measurement and ROI are always top of mind when buying decisions are made. And hard data is becoming more readily available to validate such investments

Measurement studies are expensive. Many clients are not sure it’s even possible to accurately measure the ROI of TV. But Beth Wilson, associate director, consumer marketing, Celgene, knows it is.

“We’re doing it,” she reported. “We have partners who help us get good reads on it, and we’re getting smarter all the time. When we find out where our patients are, we might change the time frame when our ads are running.”

Wilson added that anyone who is doing TV had better measure it or they’ll have to answer to their CEO. However, she firmly believes that “it’s not always ‘the highest ROI that will win.’ Sometimes you want to expand a bit and have a little less ROI, but still drive potentially more conversions or get more of an audience range. The KPI is obviously conversion, but we’re also looking at whether an ad sparked a doctor’s visit.”

In some areas, reliable measurement has been in place for years. Bill Liebman, president, Retail Intelligence, explained that retailers have always been cooperative in providing him with hard data.

“Back in the days when advertisers were first putting ads on shopping carts,” he offered, “I’d get data from store registers that gave them the results of their programs.”

When DTC advertising started in 1999, retailers realized the importance of script data not only to advertisers but also to stores to see which items were worth carrying.

“Now the stores can give me granular data — not only TRx data, but also NRx data, which is important because a lot of programs are new patient acquisition,” continued Liebman. “This is one of the few advertising mediums where you can actually get a quick read on a program’s success. You can do an analysis for every cycle for ROI.”

To those who point to specialty drugs, most of which are typically not dispensed in the pharmacy, proponents would say that marketing programs could still be measured via matched market versus matched store panels.

When it comes to digital, though, measurement remains an evolving science. Brian Gartside, senior manager, patient brand marketing, Tresiba, Novo Nordisk, pointed out that digital’s research vendors are getting very sophisticated, but it’s not just about the clicks. “Clicks are great, but the real beauty [will come] when they can measure an exposure that leads to a conversion.”

Panelists generally agreed that it takes a mix of channels to reach sales goals.

“Obviously, we message to those communities where people are heavily invested in their health and constantly look for new medications,” noted Wilson. “Conversion rates tend to be a lot higher there versus a programmatic buy on digital. Those are the things you put into the mix when looking at ROI.”

Wilson also noted that you might have great ROI, but aren’t necessarily getting the exposure you need. “I can get a lot of people in the funnel with TV, and probably fewer with point of care,” she added, “even though point of care might have a higher ROI. It’s a balancing act.”

How have changes in the drug sector (for instance, types of products coming out) impacted the media-buying landscape and how you reach your particular target audience?

Barnard: What’s driving everything for clients is innovation. That’s all they want to hear. Pharma is very much a me-too kind of industry. Finding an opportunity to stand out is very difficult. Spends are just not there, so you have to be super-creative in finding partnerships and trying to connect with others who have dollars. Those kinds of creative outlets are where we’re focused.

Gartside: The payer environment is really changing the industry. It used to be you [launched] a drug and, no matter what it was, you got coverage, you could market your product, and roll it out. But payers are getting more demanding. It’s possible you could be locked out of formulary. There’s pressure on top-line sales, which puts pressure on what you can spend to drive your business.

Leitner: With many fewer drugs being approved, we’re seeing that those being approved are smaller segments, not blockbusters. There’s blockbuster spending going on in R&D, but not the blockbuster sales. Communicators need to be much more targeted. There’s continued emphasis to prove that the plans we recommend are going to deliver the ROI that’s needed.

Wilson: I work in inflammation and immunology, which is a very competitive area. Beyond having competition, a lot of those products have multiple indications. It’s really hard, based on what your media spend is, to target your audience properly and make sure your brand is getting through all of the clutter that’s out there with other products with multiple indications.

Do you still see the lion’s share of the media budget going to TV? What are some other budgetary trends you’re seeing?

Barnard: Programmatic is hot, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. It serves a purpose in the media plan, but there’s certain inventory that’s not necessarily available in the programmatic marketplace. Also, we have a 50-year-old-plus age target, so we can’t go all in on digital because they’re not there yet. We have to evolve as the consumer is evolving. So baby steps for us.

Gartside: Years ago, the term was “360 marketing.” Everybody wanted to be 360. I’m heartened to see that buzzword has somewhat gone away and it’s more about doing a few things well, as opposed to doing a bit of everything. We have evolved as marketers to where it’s not just about “throw it all against the wall.” Do four things well and you’re probably better off than doing 10 things poorly.

Leitner: If you have a 50-year-old-plus target, print is still very important. For many of the products we work on within the pharma space, it’s going to be 50-plus. That demographic still reads magazines pretty regularly. They are looking for information and are very involved healthcare consumers. They want to read it versus having it just fly by on a TV commercial.

Wilson: We have the opportunity to look at a lot of different data sets, such as audience quality for digital, but you have to model it and see if the amount of time you have to do that program will give you enough people in the mix to have a proper readout. The question is: Do you have enough data to give you the conversion that you needed?

Looking to the future, what must media partners do to meet your evolving needs? What other future opportunities do you see?

Barnard: “Flexibility” is a really good word to focus on. Things are moving so quickly in this space. Everyone is trying to do something a little bit different and be first. But there is definitely a challenge in this with some partners. It’s not that they don’t want to be flexible, but they potentially have a product that can’t behave in the way we need it to behave.

Gartside: Be honest with me. I know I’m being sold something, but I don’t want to feel like I’m being sold something. I’ve seen outlandish presentations from vendors that don’t pass the smell test. In addition, I see an increasing ability to get really precise with targeting. We’re just scratching the surface now. It’s going to be huge as we move forward.

Leitner: We might see a bit of a backlash with how much information sharing there is digitally. There was a recent piece on NPR about taking back privacy. That’s something marketers will need to think about. With all the access to information, if there are those who are shutting down and not allowing it, how are we going to reach them? What will be the channels?

Wilson: Think about your vendors as partners. When we’re thinking about partners being invested in what we do every day, those partners, whether it be an AOR or a point-of-care partner, they’re still an extension of our brand. Their goals should be my goals. They should be educated about my business just as I’m educated about my business.