WPP adds chief strategy officer at VMLY&Rx to helm new practice in post-pandemic era

Nichole Davies is leading the new strategy practice for WPP Health pharma-focused agency VMLY&Rx, facing post-pandemic changes and challenges. (VMLY&R)

It’s not surprising that the new global chief strategy officer for WPP's prescription drug-focused agency, VMLY&Rx, has a whole lot of new strategies. But more than just being a good thing, it's necessary, as the agency enters a pharma and biotech drug development and launch world dramatically changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

From what to do with reputational gains to navigating burgeoning digital channels, Nichole Davies is leading the agency’s new practice, which aims to break down traditional siloes across the agency, pharma clients and the entire health ecosystem.

“COVID has changed so much about how we see health—we could have a 20-hour conversation about it—but one thing it has really surfaced are some of the challenges in healthcare systems around the world. The impact that can have on community, well-being and even on economic health is very front and center,” Davies said.

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Another side effect of the pandemic is increased public attention and scrutiny of drugmakers, especially at the corporate level. Pharma companies have long leaned on products brands as the face of the business. It’s been an intentional risk management strategy in that if a problem arises with a drug, it causes harm or is recalled, then the corporate pharma parent could always distance itself.

However, as the pandemic rush to develop vaccines and treatments put the spotlight on parent brands, it will now be harder for corporate pharma to stay behind the scenes. For instance, consumers now identify with Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson as the brand of vaccine they received.

“It’s put greater pressure on the pharma industry to think about their role in society, the impact that they have and the opportunity that they have to play an increasing role in society and drive it forward,” Davies said.

The COVID-19 crisis also changed the day-to-day models of how pharma companies work. Traditional sales and marketing built around simply making medicines and selling them are disappearing. Pharma companies are grappling with new engagement models, finally forced to create more direct connections to patients and other stakeholders in the healthcare system.

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“We’ve been talking about services beyond the pill for years, but we haven’t really been doing it,” Davies said. “It’s been happening here and there, and we’ve seen some nice examples break through, but it’s certainly not the standard. We’ve always had this ‘sell the product’ mentality.”

One of the first new projects Davies will be overseeing is VML&Rx’s new office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the agency caters to biotech companies, building an agency model that is more reflective of those fast-moving clients.

“Our clients are saying, ‘we need help, because as a biotech company we’re lean and mean and we don’t have the scale in our organization to facilitate new working models,’ so they’re seeking partnerships with companies like us” to bring products to market, she said.

Davies joined VMLY&R in March after previously leading strategy at WPP sibling agency Wunderman Thompson Health and before that at Grey Health and Interbrand Health.