What digital spending slowdown? If WebMD sells, don't blame pharma, industry insiders say

Doctor and digital devices
WebMD's reported exploration of a sale or other "strategic transaction" is more about the company and less about still-growing digital pharma marketing.

With a collective head smack last week, pharma industry digital insiders read about WebMD’s decision to pursue a sale or merger after some reports blamed the move on slowing pharma spending on digital marketing.

That’s because just the opposite seems true based on a wide swath of reports, data and predictions. A digital marketing pullback would go against both forecasts and the intent declared intent by pharma companies themselves.

It began when WebMD CEO Steve Zatz told investors on an earnings call recently that uncertainty with the new administration and the ongoing focus on pharma pricing has caused “some major pharma companies (to) become more cautious.” That factor spurred WebMD’s decision to lower financial guidance for 2017, which “reflects a decrease in our biopharma advertising growth rate.” Media reports followed, linking the lower guidance to the company's decision to explore a sale or other options.

“When I saw those headlines saying ‘WebMD considering sale, citing slow pharma spending,’ I modified that in my head to ‘WebMD considering sale, citing slow pharma spending with WebMD,’” Wendy Blackburn, executive VP at Intouch solutions, said in an interview

While she said people do turn to WebMD to research medical conditions, placing banners there has not proven effective, in part because advertisers have to spend large amount of money to get eyeballs.

“While WebMD does have some offerings (such as custom content micro-sites for rare disease) that get traction, in my opinion, WebMD has not evolved to stay innovative, nor have they always been fully transparent with analytics,” Blackburn said.

Her sentiments were echoed—on and off the record—by industry marketing professionals who agreed the slowdown is a WebMD issue, not a larger pharma digital marketing one.

“Sites with an overdependence on ad revenue will feel the same pain. The cause is not a sudden decrease in pharma media investments, it’s a gradual increase in the diversification of those investments. Same amount of eggs, more baskets," Doug Weinbrenner, VP and engagement strategy director at FCB Health’s Area 23, said in an interview.

Indeed, most data point to overall increases in digital spending by pharma. Leading media spend trackers Kantar and eMarketer both reported double-digit increases in digital spending by pharma in their latest annual data. EMarketer reported not only an expected 15% increase to $1.93 billion for pharma and healthcare digital spending in 2016, but also predicted continued growth to $3.1 billion in 2020. Leerink analysts last year agreed with the 13% compound annual growth rate of pharma digital marketing over five years, citing that pharma marketers, consultants and agencies are “strongly upbeat” about ad spending on digital channels for the coming years.

Anecdotally, pharma marketers and agencies also talk about the increasing importance and spending on digital and social media marketing. GlaxoSmithKline, for instance, is driving an aggressive digital transformation of its business, which includes marketing efforts and spending. Facebook recently launched a health division devoted to healthcare and pharma marketing and has seen its business grow over the past year.

Even WebMD itself said last year, via then-CEO David Schlanger, that digital was shifting from just 5% of pharma marketers' budgets to a more significant 10% to 15%.