Choose your own adventure – Features – MM+M


For the most part, healthcare marketing companies emerged from the first year of the pandemic with their business intact, if not thriving. But amid the good news — revenue up, client demand high — there was a significant storm brewing: An industrywide shortfall of data and analytics expertise.

That’s not to say companies aren’t fully embracing healthcare’s data revolution; if there’s an organization without at least some form of data and analytics offering, MM+M hasn’t crossed its path. But demand for experienced data scientists clearly exceeds supply, and that’s at a time when companies continue to wrestle with the pandemic fallout.

Indeed, the question is no longer whether data and analytics are crucial to any well-rounded healthcare marketing effort. It’s how laggards and new converts to the cause can bridge the gap between themselves and the data-wise competition.

In recent years, Food and Drug Administration approvals have increasingly been for drugs that target smaller patient populations. Education and awareness efforts focused on smaller populations only work if they’re informed by a wealth of data. Put simply: There’s only so much you can do without data.

“The world of ‘spray-and-pray’ ads doesn’t work when your drug only works for maybe 10,000 or fewer patients in the U.S.,” says Real Chemistry chief data officer Seth Duncan. “If you look at a lot of pharma companies’ pipelines, that’s not going to end anytime soon.”

Not surprisingly, marketing budgets for therapies that will only be used by a relatively small number of patients are considerably smaller than ones for drugs that combat diabetes. As a result, companies and their agency partners must become increasingly adept at finding personalized information about patients — the hospitals at which they’ve been treated, the physicians treating them and anything/everything relating to their digital savviness.

“You have to know all that to find small populations and engage with them effectively,” Duncan continues. “Claims data, really rich digital data and omnichannel data for physicians — all of it is now necessary to launch these drugs effectively.”

That reality leaves agencies without an established data and analytics practice with two options: Either build one from the ground up or buy one, likely at a premium, from somebody else.

“The agencies that will be able to help these clients, and the ones that are actually able to deliver these personalized experiences, will become their strategic partners,” says Jane Portman, practice lead for the health vertical at Merkle. “The data and analytics are the foundation for these solutions. Customer-centricity begins with data because it enables this cohesive, 360-degree view of the customer.”

Robert Gabruk, managing director of healthcare data analytics firm 81qd, makes a three-pronged case for home-growing a data and analytics practice. The first is efficiency, with costs likely to be lower than a full-on purchase of another organization.

The second has more to do with effectiveness. Gabruk believes that the quality of the output — not just from an analytics perspective, but the entirety of the services that a healthcare marketing agency provides — is better when it’s deeply informed by data. The third is innovation and intellectual property development. Instead of the analytics partner or vendor owning the IP, the agency does, which means it can charge clients a premium to access that innovation.

“It’s all about having the end-to-end capabilities, from analytics to strategy to execution,” Gabruk says. “That’s what our customers are looking for.”

With analytics embedded in all the work an agency does, the process usually comes off as seamless to all parties. “There’s no handoff from the client to the analytics partner; it’s just a part of our workflow. The efficiency and effectiveness mean that you’re going to have higher quality and more efficient processes,” Gabruk adds.

Portman, who spearheaded the development of Merkle’s data and analytics offering, notes that the in-house development of a practice offers far greater control over details big and small — everything from the data product itself to usage rights to pricing.

“You decide all that based on the competitive landscape or your specific clients,” she explains. “And that’s really important, because you don’t have someone else basically telling you how to price a product or what you can or can’t do with that data.”

But Gabruk doesn’t believe that building a data and analytics practice is for everyone. One of the main drawbacks relates to institutional culture. In most such efforts, it’s not just about bringing in data scientists. Rather, it entails training the entire organization to understand and use data.

“It’s a big investment,” he admits. “At the end of the day, if you don’t have buy-in, knowledge and capabilities outside of your analytics team, and if people don’t embrace the analytics, it’s not going to bring any value.”

Gabruk argues that no matter how data and analytics are brought into the company fold, it requires broader organizational change at the same time.

“It’s tough to get the broader organization’s arms around the analytics,” he explains. 

“That’s the biggest con against building it on your own, just that the overall investment in people training and in sales and marketing is so important. You can build it, but then you have to build the story around how the analytics really improves the quality of the medical communications services overall.”

Portman agrees that the practice-building process has some cumbersome aspects, mostly around cost and exposure.

“HIPAA is a big concern, so you have to hire HIPAA consultants,” she explains. “Then you have greater legal exposure doing it on your own. Being a data controller, particularly in the healthcare space, increases your risk for potential litigation because of data misuse. That means increased corporate insurance premiums.”

Real Chemistry has attempted to have it both ways, assembling a well-regarded data and analytics practice both through internal development and selected acquisitions. Duncan points to time — it takes longer to build than to buy — as a primary advantage of the acquisition route.

“When we’re acquiring, it’s usually because we’re going into an area that’s really new to us and we don’t want to have the capability lag by five years,” he explains. “We just don’t want to wait, so we’ll go ahead and acquire .… When we’re in a high-growth mode, we don’t always have the luxury to build.”

That concern notwithstanding, Duncan remains a big believer in building data and analytics practices from scratch.

“If you have the time to do it, you can build things your way,” he continues. “In those cases, what you build ends up looking really unique in the industry. It’s uniquely you.”

However an organization decides to establish its data and analytics offering, what matters most is the act of doing it — and doing it now. A decade ago, data was a nice-to-have; today, it’s arguably as must-have as any function within the agency environment.

“Ultimately, whether you’re talking about the medical communications agencies or the analytics companies or the pharmaceutical companies, it’s all about getting medicines to patients,” Gabruk says. “You can’t lose that perspective. Where it becomes sustainable is when the patients are getting the best treatments possible. That’s always a good thing to keep in mind when you’re thinking about building out analytics capability.” 

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