Pharma leaves ad agencies behind for in-house digital marketing teams

Brands are ditching agencies and bringing digital marketing in-house in bigger numbers than ever, and that includes pharma companies. A new study from the Society of Digital Agencies found that "the percentage of clients taking full responsibility for digital efforts at their companies grew significantly" year over year.

In fact, 27% of marketers surveyed don't work with outside agencies for digital marketing, up from just 13% in 2014. More than one-fourth (28%) said they now do all digital marketing in-house, with an overall one in seven planning to decrease marketing spending with digital agencies this year.

But the study didn't ask why, so Mark Schaefer, a college educator, marketing consultant and author, decided to ask companies, including several pharmas, what's going on for an online article in the Harvard Business Review.

He found that drugmakers are like their counterparts in many industries, when it comes to their regard for advertising agencies.

Mark Schaefer

"It's a matter of value, customer responsiveness, and a general inability of agencies to break through decades of organizational history to respond to fast-changing needs," he said in an email interview. "Another factor is the desire by companies to own the valuable data and the more intimate customer relationships created in a digital space compared to traditional channels."

Pharma does differ in other ways from consumer marketers. Increasing use of social media, which is helping to drive the shift away from agencies, is lagging in pharma compared with consumer brands. But Schaefer said that's changing. Pharma companies are giving up waiting for FDA guidance, or they should at least be thinking about it.

"By far the biggest reason pharma is generally behind on social is due to regulatory concerns. However, this is starting to change," he said. "Companies are recognizing that for many people, social channels are a primary source of information and they are finding ways to connect in small but important ways.

"I don't think there is any doubt that this rate of change simply must accelerate. The FDA has not been too helpful in this space, so the companies have to figure this out on their own and apply the resources necessary to join the rest of the world. I believe the companies that step out and establish a competency in this space will flourish, especially now when brand-building and trust is so important for business success."

Another area where pharma tends to trail consumer marketers is in the B2B trend of social selling, in this case to physicians and healthcare practices. Schaefer said that he's seen more action in training for pharma companies in that area recently, which he called a good sign in "an area ripe for opportunity."

- find the SoDA report here
- read the HBR article

Special Reports: The top 10 pharma companies in social media | The top 10 advertisers in Big Pharma

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