The Hole in Healthcare Marketing


Say what you will about the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – and as we know, there’s no shortage of opinions on either side – there’s one thing on which almost everybody agrees: healthcare access and delivery will never be the same. The impact on marketing departments will be equally profound, which was driven home in the findings of the 2013 Healthcare Marketers Trend Report.

Published by Medical Marketing & Media magazine and Ogilvy CommonHealth, the survey, distributed to more than 10,000 healthcare industry executives at the director level or higher, examined attitudes on everything from planning and budgets to strategic and tactical marketing execution. “The Big Shift,” as the headline shouts, is well supported by statistical data and delivers an excellent overview of current thinking within the sector.

One of the key findings: Less is better than more when it comes to the number of outside marketing firms retained by healthcare brands. Some 53% of senior managers shared that view. And a larger number (54%) expect their service providers to consolidate their advertising/PR/media offerings going forward.

I support that notion, but not because my worldview of healthcare marketing envisions a landscape dominated by large agencies. This shift involves size, but that’s not the catalyst for change. It’s about efficiency, response times and, as with any capitalistic enterprise, cost.

Notice that I avoided the obligatory agency references to strategy and creativity. Those are a given, a minimum threshold that every firm must satisfy in order to acquire and retain business. While one can make a subjective evaluation about how well agencies perform in those arenas, the fact is that they virtually all offer – or promote – such expertise.

So, why then does the survey show a client satisfaction rating with their agencies at just over 50%? Are we as an industry not bringing our “A” game in terms of ideation and innovation?

That may be true to some degree. But, I think a more informed answer can be found in another research finding: 7 out of every 10 healthcare executives are looking for greater consultation and collaboration across the marketing services spectrum.

In other words they are telling us that agencies, just like healthcare providers themselves, have got to re-think the way in which they deliver services. Firms must tear down their silos, whether it’s individual departments under an agency roof – or independent practitioners banding together in a virtual agency configuration.

It’s no longer going to be good enough for a lead agency to hand off a tactical marketing assignment to a specialist outside of the firm’s core competency and consider that part of an agency’s integrated or full-service marketing capabilities. Strategic alliances that link brands, but not operations, won’t cut it.

We need to build cross-functional teams populated by specialists whose metrics for success are aligned with financial objectives – both for the client and the firm.

One way in which we can be smarter centers on how we acquire informational resources and utilize them across marketing channels. For example, how can the research be done by a PR practitioner to develop a press release be shared with a writer engaged to produce the company newsletter? How might that data be useful for a graphic designer hired to produce an infographic to use as a visual asset for both traditional and social media? Could that content be shared with an advertising copywriter, who in turn, teams with an art director to create a print ad, poster – or, perhaps content for the annual report? How about the individuals or team responsible for video? The company website?

It all starts with getting people around the table – at the same time. And it requires no small amount of planning up front to establish clear roles and responsibilities, as well as the financial considerations for all partners. This will minimize the behind-the-scenes infighting between people or firms over work scope and billing, which often undermines these so called “collaborative partnerships.” Agencies that re-structure their business models to encourage – and reward – such teamwork will thrive. Then and only then will we as an industry truly begin to make good on the promise of partnership.

Michael Shepherd

Michael serves as Managing Partner of The Shepherd Group, a brand and communications firm with offices in Seattle and Newport Beach. A former journalist, he specializes in building narratives through discovery, design, and development of branded editorial and visual content.