FEATURE: Healthcare PR takes new code in its stride

The first day of 2006 saw the healthcare PR industry brace itself as the ABPI clampdown on pharma marketing came into force. But, despite initial fears about the impact of the new code, the sector managed to pull together an all-round good year. Alex Black reports.

Consultancies in PRWeek’s Top 25 healthcare PR league table (see below) raked in ­almost £50m in fee income last year, with most talking of rising fee incomes, new ­clients, organic growth and expansion plans.

A good year all round then, but many agencies kicked off 2006 with a sense of apprehension about the ­impact of firm new ABPI guidelines.

Coming hard on the heels of the Health Select Committee report, ‘The Influence of the Pharmaceutical Industry’, early in 2005, the ABPI tightened existing rules covering promotional aids, hospitality, travel and accommodation for health professionals on 1 January 2006.

Rules on meetings and seminars came under the ABPI’s microscope, as did the ­offering of items for ‘the personal benefit of health professionals’. ‘Subsistence must be strictly limited to the main purpose of the event and be secondary to the purpose of the meeting,’ explained the ABPI.

‘Companies must only offer economy air travel to delegates sponsored to attend meetings. Lavish venues must not be used and companies should avoid using venues renowned for enter­tainment facilities.’

Additional sanctions were also made available for when companies breached the code, including the flagging up of serious breaches in the medical and pharmaceutical press. Reports of completed cases are now published more frequently on the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) website.

Huntsworth Health’s medical comms director Sandy Thomson confirms the industry has been affected by the tighter regulations, and says that in some cases the new code has fostered more caution in terms of what can be delivered.

But as draconian as these rules ­appeared on paper, their effect on healthcare PR has not been not as dramatic as some feared.

Most healthcare PROs are well aware of the issues surrounding the provision of ‘lavish venues’ to entertain doctors. Although the new ­guidelines seemed to have increased workloads as agencies hoard piles of detailed paperwork to prove they are within the rules, PROs claim not to have experienced many major headaches as a result.

‘Sure, the regulatory environment is challenging,’ says Tonic Life Communications MD Oliver Parsons, ‘but you just have to think creatively within its confines rather than saying “we can’t do anything”.’

One new development to soften the impact of the new code was the introduction of a PMCPA comms manager in July. Niamh MacMahon is heading up an ongoing drive to keep health professionals, patients and patient organisations up to speed on the new rules.

‘It definitely had a big impact,’ says MacMahon (pictured, right), ‘but we are a long way down the road now and there is a better understanding by the industry of how to work within the code.’

The areas that ‘caused the most discussion’ so far have been ‘hospitality, venues, meetings, medical and educational goods and services, and work with patient groups,’ she adds.

Regulatory issues aside, ­a trend that emerged last year was the increased emphasis on ‘grassroots influencer’ programmes.

Just Health PR director Jennie ­Talman says: ‘Individual PCTs [primary care trusts] prescribe different drugs, so ­being able to target them at a ­regional level is key.’

Also apparent is the way the mainstream media has shifted its ­emphasis when it comes to new drug launches. The approval of a new drug used to be a big story in the national press. Now journalists are waiting for the NICE clearance before covering it.

‘Look at our work for [Pfizer’s smoking-cessation drug] Champix,’ says ­Talman (pictured, left). ‘It was licensed in December 20, but the mainstream media only covered the access story after last month’s NICE decision.’

Many agencies have bemoaned the lack of senior staff in the recruitment market, while many in-house teams have also been subject to reshuffles and reorganisation.

Although some of these changes in client personnel will have an adverse effect on client-agency relationships, many of them will also present new ­opportunities for agencies.

It often means that healthcare ­specialist agencies with a few years’ ­experience on an account can offer valuable continuity.

2006 saw a wealth of product recalls after counterfeit drugs smuggled in from developing countries infiltrated the supply chain, says Ruder Finn UK MD John Preston (pictured, below right).

‘The integrity of a brand is obviously very important, so pharma companies are looking at innovations such as ­radio frequency tagging through the whole supply chain,’ he explains.

‘The healthcare PRO’s role in this process will be to explain to healthcare professionals why these new ­security measures are necessary and how they will be implemented.

The effect of the increased diversification of healthcare professionals who can prescribe – meaning consumers can pick up lifestyle drugs over the counter to help them lose weight or stop smoking – has also required messaging to change across the industry.

Like nearly every other sector of the PR industry, healthcare also saw the web increase its influence over ­consumers in 2006. ‘I would say that ­between 60 and 80 per cent of people ­recently diagnosed with a serious condition, or who have relatives in that position, are now ­actively seeking ­information about it on the internet,’ says Preston.


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Although this online empowerment is breeding a more savvy patient, he sounds a note of caution. ‘The unregulated nature of the net presents a need for non-branded information that sets out patient options and provides the science to back up the claims,’ he says.

‘Drug companies in Europe don’t want branded advertising either,’ he adds, referring to Pharma TV, a dedicated interactive digital channel ­recently mooted by four of the big pharmaceutical companies. ‘They simply want the opportunity to put ­balanced information in the public ­domain for people to read, rather than junk written by strange people and stuck up on the web.’

Last year was marked by a sudden flurry of biotech deals by big pharma. Pfizer snapped up the loss-making PowderMed for over £210m, gaining access to the Oxford-based firm’s pipeline of advanced flu vaccines.

Late in the year Wyeth also signed a US$212m exclusive research collaboration and licence agreement with Belgian biotech firm Ablynx for the use of its nanobody technology.

CharlesThis is a marked change from a few years ago when the pharmaceutical companies sat in an ivory tower and made life difficult for the bioscience sector, says Northbank Communications CEO Sue Charles (pictured, left).

Now that the pharma pipeline has thinned, she explains, pharma firms are marketing themselves as a partner of choice to bioscience outfits.

‘With ­fewer new drugs and treatments coming through the pipeline, the balance of power has shifted, strengthening the biotechnology sector’s hand,’ she says.

'The R&D departments of biotechnology firms are delivering exciting new products and pharmaceutical companies are now competing with each other for biotech spoils. Pfizer’s purchase of PowderMed was a surprise to many, but from Pfizer’s point of view it was the best way to gain a foothold in the next generation of vaccines.’

Among the agencies appearing for the first time in the Top 25 are Just Health PR, Tonic Life (see below) and Huntsworth Health. The latter is a specialist health shop formed in 2006 from the constituent parts of Avenue HKM, Jago Pearce, branding/ad agencies PBC and VB Communications, and market research company Brand Health International.

Its medical ­comms head Sandy Thomson (pictured, right) says the combined agency is aiming to react to increasing client demands for ‘integrated solutions’ on a global scale. The acquisition of 125-strong US healthcare marcoms agency Dorland in March this year is a key part of this ­international offering, she adds.

So despite a nervy start to 2006, the Top 25 table suggests a healthy sector. Chandler Chicco Agency, the highest placed of the agencies whose sole ­focus is healthcare, pulled in just under £5m in fees but was beaten into second place by Edelman’s extra £3,876 of fee income.

In fact, seven of the top ten in the table are ­almost entirely focused on healthcare PR, suggesting that, Edelman aside, specialist agencies still dominate the sector.

As agencies and in-house teams learn to live with a tighter regulatory environment, it seems the opportunities currently outweigh the threats..

NEW ENTRANT - Tonic Life

2006 saw Tonic Life Communications open offices in both New York and Dallas – a major international expansion for an agency that was founded in 2004.

The NYC office’s focus is on life science and pharmaceuticals, explains MD Oliver Parsons (pictured, left).

The Dallas office – headed up by Jennifer Ryan, a Texan and a former Fleishman-Hillard colleague of Parsons and Tonic co-founder Scott Clark – is concentrating on corporate work and consumer health.

The expansion means Parsons and Clark have spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic.

This year is the first time the agency has entered PRWeek’s league tables, and 2006’s total fees of £2.3m placed it 76th in the Top 150.

With £1.8m of healthcare billings, it is just outside the top ten healthcare agencies.

The focus for 2007 has been on strengthening the agency’s cardio­vascular work and looking for two more major clients.

Parsons says the right wins, and decent organic growth, should push total fees past the £3m mark for 2007. ‘Two or three’ more new hires are also on the cards for this summer.

NEW ENTRANT - Just Health PR

Just has just moved into a new Putney home with enough space for 22. As the agency currently has ten staff, the move is a clear statement of intent that staff growth is high on the list of the agency’s priorities.

‘We are on track for £1m in fees this year and are aiming to have 12 full-time staff by the beginning of 2008,’ says director and co-founder Jennie Talman.

Talman and ex-Chandler Chicco Agency (CCA) new-business director Emma Crozier launched Just in February, and wasted no time before pulling in some big accounts.

The pair picked up the UK account for Pfizer’s Champix last Easter, and have gone on to win work with Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche UK, Lilly and Novartis.

Talman, who quit as CCA’s MD to set up Just, says the agency has been growing organically to avoid spreading itself too thin, but is now in a position to take on the big agencies and start sniffing out major new accounts.

However, Just has not escaped the industry-wide skills shortage, and has developed a ‘progressive’ attitude towards using freelancers. ‘Clients are now more accepting of freelancers,’ says Talman. ‘You just need to make sure you are straight with the client that the freelancer is on a contract and explain why their skills make them suited to the account.’

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