Of course, being drop-dead gorgeous and almost terminally charming, I think agencies should be chosen for having pretty people who are good fun. And it’s easy too – just go for a drink with them, somewhere well-lit, and you can decide who you want to work with. There are two drawbacks to this tried and true method. First, Kathy Burke and I have the same problem: we know how irresistible we are; sometimes others don’t quite see it. Second, healthcare communications and marketing requires real skills these days. The other extreme is the agency pitch. Go through Communique, pick anyone you have ever heard of and sit through two days of rushed one-hour pitches for your business. This is a less sensible approach than the drink in a well-lit bar. Let’s look at a typical scenario.

The first step is, obviously, to write a detailed brief. Well, it’s not that obvious: about half the invitations to pitch don’t come with any brief. Many of the rest consist of statements of the painfully obvious (“our goal is to become a leading company in the treatment of osteoporosis”) or the totally superfluous (“our objective is to maximise media coverage of our launch”). There are very, very few which lay out a clear commercial strategy; an analysis of the competitive environment; a set of audiences with priorities attached to each; a commercial plan for other marketing activities; a calendar of key dates; a realistic assessment of available resources and; a set of achievements by which the programme will be measured. There is a good reason for this – briefs take a lot of time and expertise and they often lay bare internal disagreements on responsibilities and strategy. Usually, you need a consultant to write the brief.

The second step is to tell the agency all you know about the product: the phase I results; the unpublished phase II data; the indicators that encourage or worry you about the upcoming phase III data; the safety concerns you have looked at internally; your market research amongst prescribers; your patient focus groups on acceptance; your pricing strategy and your roll-out schedule market-by-market. Right? Of course you don’t. You can’t have eight agencies wandering around with all of that confidential information so you throw all of them little bits. And they build their programmes based on data which are, at best, partial and, at worst, misleading. They will do their own research but economics dictate they will be using Google whilst you are using millions of pounds worth of intelligence.

The third step is to assign a budget to the programme and set parameters. If it is an international programme, define what should be budgeted centrally and what should be paid for in countries and regions. Produce a list of events which need to be covered by the requested programme and summarise your company’s approach to current regulatory controversies. I can think of one company that routinely does this but most fudge – the
budget is probably still being finalised; only the very brave give a written view on the great power struggle between the headquarters and the operating company; most avoid trying to synthesise the pronouncements of the company lawyers into some coherent approach to DTC, patient group alliances and press materials.

So you hand over a quick brief that won’t upset anyone internally. Then you ask for the agencies’ best ideas. You are amazed that most are either much too expensive, much too ambitious, much too mundane, wrongly targeted, guaranteed to enrage the subsidiaries or exactly like a programme which corporate affairs is already running. You are most horrified at the budget but this exercise will have taken 20 or 30 days of very senior staff time within the agency at an opportunity cost of well over $60,000 (not to mention travel, junior staff time, printing, etc…). It’s just like old-fashioned sampling – it has to generate a return somewhere. Worst of all, you are not really sure who did what or whether the person who thought of the brilliant “granny kick boxing” contest will actually work on your business. Of course, the agency boss presented it but what does that mean? Routine re-pitches have all of these disadvantages and more. Re-pitches are, remember, two-way affairs: if you have an agency with which you have a good relationship, do you really want to give them three months in which to see if your competitors will offer them better rates or terms than you? Besides which, do you visit your doctor every three years to tell her that you think she is very good but, really, you feel obliged to see if someone out there scored higher on their requalification exams?

So, it is back to cocktails under the spotlight or calling Aunt Maude’s husband’s cousin who works at the agency with the funny name. Or you could do what a not-for profit client did to me years ago – it was the most challenging selection process I have ever been through because it tested the agency’s ability to develop a relationship. First, they spoke to twenty or thirty agencies and asked for ten minutes on the phone with two people in the agency who knew a lot about the specific health issues which concerned the client. On the call, they asked about agency experience and the two individuals’ understanding and views.

The client came up with a shortlist of five agencies. Each was asked to present (by video conference – they guaranteed a level playing field by not allowing in-person meetings) a set of credentials which addressed overall competence and a list of twelve or thirteen capabilities that really mattered to the client (ranging from “give the best examples of your experience in dealing with sensitive media enquiries on contraception and women’s reproductive health” to “how would you implement programme elements in India?”). Each agency was given a set of common campaign elements (e.g. production of a video news release around a certain story,international distribution and sell-in to four markets) and asked to cost them exactly as they were. Each of the five was asked to send two people to a broad-ranging discussion on the issues in the field and on the environment (but not the specific work to be done in the proposed programme) with a group of staff and specialists. The staff led the discussion; the specialists presented data and points for discussion; the agency people were only allowed to contribute to the discussion, not to present. The staff and specialists rated the agency staff on knowledge, creativity, ability to work collectively and understanding of key markets. The client paid for the airfares.

Finally, one agency was appointed for six months, asked to sign comprehensive confidentiality agreements, given access to all of the plans and data, invited to key internal meetings and told to write a communications plan. The client committed to paying for the time required to write the plan but no more. The agency was told that if the working relationship was good and the plan was compelling, they would get the implementation work.

If not, the client would re-run the process to find an agency with whom they could build a relationship but would, anyway, own the plan.
The process saved time and money and closely replicated what really matters: an agency’s ability to understand a client’s priorities and to build an effective relationship based on those priorities.