Healthcare trends: A sector in the spotlight

While some industry sectors faced turbulent times because of the pandemic, healthcare was leaned upon like never before and saw big gains in the COVID-19 era.

Imre Health launched a social and digital media-focused campaign for GlaxoSmithKline’s multiple myeloma drug, Blenrep.
Imre Health launched a social and digital media-focused campaign for GlaxoSmithKline’s multiple myeloma drug, Blenrep.

One agency sector fared better than most through the pandemic: healthcare. GCI Health was up year over year by 28%; JPA Health by 27%; and Imre Health by almost 11%. While each agency reported their numbers fell short of pre-pandemic forecasts, those are solid results in any year.  

That doesn’t mean all healthcare-focused agencies enjoyed revenue jumps. Spectrum Science reported a flat 2020 in part due to client pull-back on medical conference comms spending in the wake of events going virtual.  

M Booth Health, meanwhile, had a 12% drop in 2020 revenue. The agency’s CEO Timothy Bird attributes the dip to ongoing agency consolidation in the sector.   

“A global pharmaceutical manufacturer moved a large portion of business away from its small to midsize regional or specialist agencies such as M Booth and consolidated at one multinational agency,” he says. “They continue to be a significant and valued client, but the impact of the consolidation was significant.”  

Still, M Booth Health’s 2021 has been strong, notes Bird, with “several highly prestigious clients working on COVID.”  

Clients include the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a research center at the University of Washington that has been providing COVID-19 case and mortality projections to media and other stakeholders. M Booth Health helped stabilize attacks on the credibility of IHME’s forecast methodologies and helped grow awareness of its global network. 

Agency leaders say the healthcare industry as a whole has benefited from a rise in consumer trust after its response to coronavirus. For instance, a Harris Poll in May 2020 found 40% of Americans had a more positive view of the pharmaceutical industry than at the start of the pandemic in March. 

Of their improved perceptions, respondents cited efforts by pharma to combat the novel coronavirus as well as collaboration among rivals (such as Johnson & Johnson and Merck on the one-shot Janssen COVID-19 vaccine). 

With the opportunity to build momentum as a consumer-friendly sector, GCI Health “saw a big uptick from clients in thought leadership and CSR work,” says the firm’s global CEO Kristin Cahill. “Companies are wanting to be out there with a strong point of view.” 

However, she says “it needs to be in a less corporate, glossy way, and with more authenticity than in the past.” To that end, GCI Health launched The Content Collaborative in April 2020. It puts digital, design, editorial and creative teams under a single umbrella to craft deeper, more resonant content and “move people through a diverse range of channels,” says Cahill. 

Syneos Health Communications has “been supporting several clients on increasing consumer confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines,” says Jeanine O’Kane, president of the agency’s U.S. PR group.  

New clients that arose from the pandemic included the COVID R&D Alliance. It was formed by more than 20 life sciences companies to identify and accelerate therapies and vaccines. 

Syneos surveyed 10 member companies to inform the alliance positioning and media strategy, partnered with naming agency Addison Whitney to title the alliance, created the website, messaging and creative collateral and placed R&D leaders in media such as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist.  

Financial PR also felt the pandemic effect. Vaccine development sparked investor interest in healthcare stock, which extended beyond big pharma to biotech regardless of whether they were working on a COVID-19 vaccine or not.  

JPA Health saw new business account for 85% of its revenue growth in 2020 — a figure founder and principal Carrie Jones attributes in large part to the strength in biotech and financial PR. “A lot of products reached clinical milestones and the IPO market was strong,” she explains. 

AstraZeneca biomarkerJPA Health executed an influencer campaign for AstraZeneca with PGA Tour champion Jason Day and his mother to raise awareness of complete biomarker cancer testing before starting treatment.  

Account wins for the agency in the sector included Nobelpharma, Sage Therapeutics and Xilio Therapeutics.  

Digital innovation and thinking about diversity
Medical conferences that went ahead last year did so virtually, requiring a rethink from agencies and clients about how to reach physicians using virtual booths, Twitter chats, media outreach and more.  

“We relied on substance more than ever, because when you don’t have 40,000 people under one roof you lose all the pomp and circumstance,” says Karen O’Malley, MD, public affairs practice chair at M Booth Health. “And so, whereas normally a client might promote 30 pieces of research at a conference, we picked five things for them to focus on that were most relevant to what was happening in the world.”  

It helped gain attention for clients such as the International AIDS Society’s AIDS 2020 Virtual Conference held last July with a no-cost standalone program dedicated to COVID-19. Speakers included Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been a leading voice on both AIDS and the novel coronavirus.  

M Booth Health also organized a media roundtable with Fauci ahead of this year’s IAS COVID-19 Conference: Prevention.

“It helped gain attention for the IAS and make it relevant in a 24/7 COVID news cycle,” says O’Malley.  

Digital innovation was also the prescription for clients in reaching patients. “A lot of the work we do in healthcare is rooted in digital and social activation,” says Jeff Smokler, partner and president at Imre Health, “and so we doubled down on that in reaching direct-to-consumer audiences.“ 

In August 2020, Imre created GlaxoSmithKline’s first branded open-comment Twitter channel for its multiple myeloma drug, Blenrep. The campaign included a branded website and digital banner ads, building on an unbranded Multiple Myeloma & You patient education platform the agency developed in late 2019 to foster a sense of community.  

Spectrum Science supports Matrix Medical Network in helping organizations decentralize their clinical trials and reach broader and more diverse participant populations. It has mobilized and executed more than 30 clinical trial sites across the U.S. in 2021 through deployment of state-of-the-art mobile health clinics. 

“Clients have been asking us to reimagine what they’ve always been doing in a virtual and socially distanced world, but also in terms of reaching a more diverse audience,” says Spectrum Science president Michelle Gross. “It is work that is really important and we hope to grow.”  

It’s no surprise that media coverage of healthcare was dominated by the pandemic last year. 

Agencies had to develop new strategies in securing attention for organizations of various diseases and causes that would have been much easier in a non-COVID world.  

“If our client had an authentic angle and could talk about the impact of COVID-19 from, say, a mental health standpoint or in terms of access to care, that gave us a window to place stories,” says Jones. “But if it wasn’t an authentic connection, the ability to tell a health story outside of COVID-19 was really challenging.”  

“That is why digital work has become so critical,” continues Jones.  

She points to an influencer campaign JPA Health did for AstraZeneca to raise awareness of biomarker testing before starting cancer treatment. It featured PGA Tour champion Jason Day, R&B star Babyface and other influencers with connections to lung cancer, generating 1.3 million engagements on social media.  

“Every healthcare reporter seemed focused on COVID-19 and we even saw non-healthcare reporters put on the beat,” says Jennifer O’Neill, MD, healthcare at Marina Maher Communications. “And so there was less interest and less real estate for non-COVID-19 health stories.”

By mining data to inform pitching strategies, MMC discovered fewer people were getting help for heart attacks and stroke and leveraged that angle to earn coverage for clients focused on cardiovascular diseases.  

“There were ways around it,” says O’Neill. “Some of our biggest success in the past year has been getting coverage for clients outside COVID.”

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