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Pharma marketing in the time of COVID-19? Some halts, some hopes, but mostly uncertainty

20 Mar 2020

While there is no business as usual anymore, pharma marketing is mostly staying the course for now in the shadow of COVID-19. A survey of ad agencies and communications firms that handle pharma clients found both slowdowns and bright spots, but mostly lots of question marks as the situation continues to unfold.

History shows that in any economic downturn, one of the first expenses cut is advertising and marketing. In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, advertising media spending dropped 13%.

However, for now pharma and healthcare marketing continues, albeit from home offices and on virtual platforms. The shift from in-person to digital is not only happening in office work groups but also for advertising, medical conferences and sales rep detailing.

Wendy Blackburn, executive vice president of marketing and communications at Intouch Solutions, said her firm is holding Zoom video calls and moderating virtual workshops with clients as the FDA still “trickles out” some important product decisions.

"We are definitely seeing (what is likely a short-term) uptick in activity," she said via email. "For example, in many cases, we are helping clients communicate with their audiences about how COVID-19 could impact patients and HCPs relative to the disease state/specialty. Oncology and immunology are critical areas here."

However, she added that the long term is a different scenario, with clinical trials at risk and product development that may then lag. Sales rep detailing is another unknown.

"The existing model of rep detailing could be flipped on its head. If product sales didn't suffer from reps not being in the field, do we need to send them back out? Or the opposite could be true; it will be interesting to see, and we're watching that closely," Blackburn said.

GCI Health hasn't felt a major impact yet, either, as many of the launches on the communications agency's docket are set for later in 2020, CEO Wendy Lund said in an email. However, the agency has gone into preparation mode using three contingency levels—Plan A if all goes as planned, Plan B figuring in the impact of COVID-19 and Plan C, which is still "beyond anticipating what's going on now," she said.

CMI/Compas noted that while some of its clients are talking about pausing social media ads for now, the group also has others interested in expanding healthcare professional social media and virtual communications.

Specific impacts and digital deployment vary by region. Indegene CEO Manish Gupta said his company has seen an "unprecedented acceleration" to digital and non-personal communications by life science companies around the world. In the U.S. and Europe, for instance, requests center on an increase in digital content for websites, emails and mobile apps, while consistent around the world, including China, is a demand for more omnichannel marketing and medical education campaigns, he said in an email.

"We are also seeing differences in the choice of channels by pharma companies. For instance, in China, the spike in demand for content is more towards content that can be deployed using WeChat, whereas in the U.S. and EU, the demand is for more emails, banners and website-based content. We have seen a spike in the demand for virtual meetings and symposia in Europe and in APAC," Gupta said.

One definite loss for all of pharma is live marketing events. City-to-city educational tours, onetime events and even community fundraisers are postponed or cancelled. That includes performances such as ViiV Healthcare's ongoing HIV community productions of its play "As Much as I Can," meant to raise consciousness around HIV stigma. The play was set for a March run, which had to be cancelled. Another effort on hold is Team Novo Nordisk's professional cyclers, made up of riders who all have diabetes, which has been grounded while professional cycling events around the world are on hold.

Related to marketing events is what may be biggest question mark of all—medical conferences. The circuit of global meetings where pharma marketers unveil data, talk up drugs pre-launch and begin to present marketing materials directly to physicians, industry analysts and others is stopped in its tracks, with no indication of when it might resume.

"Concerns around spreading the virus have pushed nearly every medical meeting to either cancel outright or go virtual, and we're helping our clients to completely retool their approaches to these meetings and come up with new ways to help them break through," Lund said.

That typically means adopting new and creative uses of digital technology and tools.

Across the FCB Health Network, for instance, agencies are helping pharma and healthcare clients "with remote product launches, launch meetings, rep detailing, POAs, photo shoots, ad boards—what once were live events, now to be conducted virtually and seamlessly," Ross Quinn, director of customer solutions, said in an email.

The only certainty in pharma marketing, like the business world itself right now, is uncertainty. But there is also room for hope.

Donna Murphy, global CEO of Havas Health & You, offered some perspective in light of the network's operations around the world.

"Much of life, and most certainly health, continues to be highly prioritized. What we do know from our teams in China, who are now in the stabilization phase, is that this is temporary. Companies need immediate short-term planning for the current paradigm, as well as long–term plans that fit into what will be somewhat of a new normal long-term in terms of how people feel, think and act," she said in an email.

"We also know that individual and collective health and wellness will be an even bigger priority on the other side of this," she added. "We need to work together as an industry in the most collaborative and innovative ways right now to support positive health outcomes globally."

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