PR Week, the industry rag for public relations practitioners, recently ran an editorial titled “Healthcare must retain its independent thinking” (subscription required). I received this from a friend and it set me to thinking. While I don’t think many readers of this blog are PR people, this has very real implications for everyone in pharma.
The premise of the article is that, as independent public relations agencies are gobbled up by parent companies, they loose their creative thinking. Ditto could also be said for drug company’s pipelines, but that’s another article.
The implication is that agencies owned by holding companies have no creative thinking. I won’t go that far, but maybe the topic is worth exploring.
Talking to folks in pharma companies, the pitches from agencies these days all look the same. Some of them even have the same elements. Hill & Knowlton looks a lot like Ogilvy, and with good reason – they are both owned by WPP Group. It’s gotten to the point where WPP looks like Omnicom looks like Havas looks like Publicis. Ogilvy looks like Burson Marstellar looks like Fleishman Hillard looks like Porter Novelli looks like Ketchum. Even the big “independent” firms like Edelman and Ruder Finn look like the holding companies.
Are the big agencies inherently bad? No. But given their structure and ownership, they tend to be fairly conservative and don’t want to take risks. Not exactly a recipe for creative thinking.
So where does all this fit into healthcare and pharmaceutical PR? So far this year, three good independent agencies have all been purchased by larger conglomerates and holding companies.
In the PR Week Editorial, we are counseled to listen to history. PR Week writes, “If history is anything to go by, independents can usually afford to take risks where larger conglomerates can’t. So, while these firms’ reporting structures will obviously change a great deal, all healthcare agencies, independent or not, need to ensure they take independent ideas to the clients – or the healthcare PR sector will suffer as a whole.”
However, PR Week misses two other lessons of history. One is that the worst time to be a client (or an employee) of an agency is when it goes through such an organizational or ownership change. An agency is only as good as its employees and if they are distracted by acquisitions, you’re not getting their best thinking. The likely result is that the good employees leave and, as the account staffs change, clients get wise and defect. We’ve seen it time and again.
Although it is implied in the editorial, the final lesson of history missed by PR Week is that clients are often with the independent firms for a reason. They are attracted to smaller shops, with lower billing rates that are willing to really listen to your interests, rather than ramming their cookie-cutter PR down your throat. When an independent PR firm is bought out by a holding company, the entire culture is changed. This is more than just about bringing good ideas to the table or who is the final head of the agency. It’s about the look, the feel, the interaction and lifeblood of the agency.
While a little esoteric for the average reader of this blog, this discussion has considerable implications for everyone involved in pharmaceutical marketing and management.