Changing channels: In a major shift, pharma's TV spending flattens while digital surges

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Pharma marketers are beginning to funnel TV budget ad money into digital for targeted consumer and physician reach. (Getty/ViewApart)

2020 is shaping up to be a tipping point for pharma TV advertising. Researchers and media experts are predicting flatter-than-ever TV budgets, while digital media continues to gather steam—and earn more shifted TV dollars.

It’s more gradual than radical, but worth noting what prognosticators are saying about 2020. WARC marketing intelligence’s annual forecast, for instance, found that while TV will still reap the lion's share of total dollars spent at 55% next year, spending will only grow by 0.8%. Digital advertising, by contrast, will jump 14.1%.

Obviously, pharma is far from abandoning its mainstream TV strategy, but the predictions do indicate the industry is catching up to other sectors that adopted digital for better targeting and easier tracking while still reaching a wide audience. 


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It's also becoming necessary—more than 50% of millennials and Gen X consumers don't watch traditional TV at all anymore.

“TV has always been a staple in the pharma industry for generating mass reach and awareness of new products. But the sector is now looking online to potential consumers in a more personalized way, potentially reducing wastage in mass media plans,” said James McDonald, managing editor and author of the WARC research.

The digital tide holds true not only for consumer or DTC marketing, but also for professional marketing to physicians. In Indegene’s annual healthcare provider survey for 2020, physicians rated digital communications higher than sales reps as the preferred form of communication for the first time in the study’s history.

In another interview with FiercePharma earlier this year, Anne Austin, Publicis Media’s Zenith agency global intelligence manager, said the shift from TV to digital for pharma is inevitable and has already begun globally first.

“Multinational pharma companies are more used to exploring the possibilities of digital advertising outside of the U.S., because in many markets, TV ads for prescription medicines are banned. So the big players will have sufficient experience to understand how to approach such a reallocation of budgets from TV toward digital when they judge the time is right to do so," she said. "We think that time is now."