Health agencies' turnover up by a quarter, says new poll

Healthcare PR agencies are booming, with an average growth in turnover of 22 per cent during 2005, according to a report published this week.

The survey concludes that agency growth is most likely due to additional clients.

Client budgets for different types of programmes are staying flat, and around half of the agencies surveyed did not increase their billing rates during 2005.

The positive results of the Healthcare Communi­cations Association's (HCA) annual Benchmarking Survey echo PRWeek's research on health agencies earlier this year (19 May).

The HCA's latest survey - which polled 40 organisations (pharma companies and agencies) - found that the new ABPI Code of Practice, which came into force on 1 January 2006, has had a ‘significant impact' on comms activity.

Comms professionals, it ­appears, are ­particularly twitchy about falling foul of the tightened code (see below).

Agencies also said clients were taking longer to pay them for work carried out. The survey said this ‘may be due to newly introduced ­purchase order systems'.

There is a notable contrast between the average time agencies wait for payment from clients (55 days) and the average contracted payment time (32 days). The poll also revealed an increase in the percentage of leads that agencies are converting to new business ­without a pitch, which is now 23 per cent.

The HCA concluded: ‘One explanation may be the increased number of ­procurement agreements, which may circumvent the pitch process.' However, it said the pitch process remained ‘the norm' as far as agency selection is concerned. Agencies estimate the cost of pitching for an ­account worth £200,000 to be £22,700.

As in previous years, the survey found that recruiting good staff remains difficult in healthcare PR. This year's survey stated that ‘recruitment is most difficult at middle and senior ­levels - agency account director being a good example'.

Furthermore, the survey warned that the ‘talent pool is diminishing as some staff decide to leave the ­industry altogether'.

HCA Benchmarking Survey: key findings

Healthcare Communications Association chair Julia Cook assesses the findings: ‘As an industry, we're moving steadily forwards in developing the role of comms as part of the pharma marketing mix. This is despite widespread and worsening resource restrictions, plus new environmental constraints following the Health Select Committee inquiry and ABPI Code of Practice review.

‘But we need closer collaboration between in-house and agency communicators, and a team approach to delivering effective outcomes. This year's survey highlights a will to develop this and jointly overcome existing hurdles, such as highlighting to payers that we're not in a commodity business.'

Quotes from the HCA report:
‘One agency at a pitch talked about how to "work around the [ABPI] Code of Practice" - this was a real turn-off.' In-house respondent

‘More clients are demanding evidence that their account teams have been trained in the new [ABPI] Code of Practice.' Agency respondent

‘There's a small pool of talent and we're all fighting for the same people - either to get them or to hang on to them.' In-house respondent

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