Small versus big digital agencies for pharma

SUMMARY: You should never choose an agency based on size. It should be because they are a good fit with your brand team and can take your digital marketing to the next level while ensuring that everything they do is best in class.

Debra called me up in a bit of a panic. She had received a proposal from her digital agency to build their product website and a proposal for paid media. The proposal was 24 pages long, and she didn’t know if it was too much or too little. She asked me to review the proposal, which I did at no charge, and give her my feedback. My feedback was simple “find another agency.”

More and more pharma companies are becoming reliant on digital agencies to develop and execute their online strategies. I’ve reviewed a LOT of these proposals, and I see a trend. Bigger agency proposals are always more expensive than smaller digital agencies.

Some pharma digital agencies have expanded in recent years, but in doing so, they need more dollars to cover the overhead of bigger offices and payrolls. Some agencies bring in “rainmakers” who are expected to open the doors to potential clients through past relationships. The key question, though, is, are clients happy?

It’s been my experience that clients are most satisfied with smaller agencies because they feel important to the agency. It goes beyond that, though. In smaller agencies, clients usually have one point of contact and don’t need to shuffle meetings to ensure that key agency people attend.

Bureaucratic processes in bigger agencies can be a huge barrier. I was waiting to review a proposal from an agency on updating the website, and when it was delayed, I was told, “it has to be reviewed by their committee before it goes to the client. That’s bullshit..”

When I hire an agency, I want two things: seamlessly integrating within the brand team and quick turnarounds on minor work and proposals. That seems minor, but a lot of agencies can’t do these two things.

An agency should be hired because the client believes they will do the BEST work for the brand and help the brand achieve its objectives. Clients then need to be smart enough to step back and let agencies do what they do best. But, all that money has been wasted when that work is just a cookie-cutter website and a paid media plan that doesn’t deliver on key metrics.

Experienced DTC managers are in high demand as more and more leave the industry. Too many new DTC managers rely on their agencies to direct their digital efforts, which may not be a bad thing. Still, their work is usually over when you pay their invoice, and DTC people are left to explain metrics to senior executives.

The common trait among the better online agencies is listening and guiding a client as to why they are recommending specific tactics. For example, one agency used actual patients and patient testimonials when developing an MS site because it tested very well among MS online health seekers and caregivers. It cost a little more than stock photos, but it conveyed a “sense of honesty” to people who visited the site.

Smaller agencies usually have a disadvantage when they try and get through the procurement process. I’ve helped some get past this roadblock, but it’s a lot of work. Bigger agencies have departments for everything, but that involves more time to navigate.

Don’t choose an agency based on size. Chose one who commits to making your brand stand out and wants you to succeed because they understand it as a great reference for their work. Make sure you don’t need to check calendars to bounce an idea off them and ask them for help selling ideas to key people.

Your brand is defined more and more by what people experience online. Make sure it’s a damn good one, and don’t settle for “just getting it done.”