The REAL threats to DTC advertising


  • There is a talent drain at the agency and DTC levels.
  • More experienced DTC people are being forced to retire.
  • TV still gets the biggest share of DTC budgets, but they don’t drive brand objectives.
  • Talented marketers don’t want a career in pharma because of the culture.

Many pharma agencies have allowed and sometimes forced experienced, talented people to leave while replacing them with inexpensive unproven people, and it shows. There are too many inexperienced DTC brand directors (not that I mind as it means more work for me) who are being led by people who are only interested in pleasing clients and getting paid.

Last week I had a chance to review a creative brief submitted to an agency to launch a new product. It was one of the worst briefs I have ever read. It lacked detail about the audience, an in-depth competitors’ landscape, and a “reason to believe.” More importantly, the action the client stated, as a result of the brief, was to ask for an Rx. Pure fantasy.

There are several things going on here.

1ne: Pharma companies are forcing out older, experienced employees.

2wo: Talented marketing people don’t want to work in pharma because of the culture.

3hree: Pharma-only agencies have forced out people who created great campaigns and replaced them with people who are too anxious to make a name for themselves.

A big part of my services involves explaining, to DTC managers, how people evaluate prescription drugs and where they go to get more information. Within pharma, there is a huge perception that people go to their doctor to ask about a drug they see via a TV spot without doing a lot more research (online).

The other issue is that doing TV ads makes DTC managers feel good about themselves. Nothing like going to an exotic location for a shoot while the agency wines and dines clients. Before the pandemic, a pharma company client went to Spain for a two-week shoot that included agency paid for dinners, tours, and hotels. The agency had said that shooting OUS would save money when it comes to royalty fees?

76% of DTC budgets go to TV. About 20% go online. That’s a huge mismatch. TV drives awareness; the internet drives conversion, but one of the hardest things to do for these agencies is to get the client to spend the necessary amount of money that will lead online health seekers to ask for an Rx. Content strategy? Too expensive. Usability study? I don’t have time or the budget.

Finally, the culture within pharma HAS to change. Days of back-to-back meetings and weeks to accomplish even simple things are a competitive disadvantage. Talented marketers and new grads don’t care if you offer them a great salary anymore. They want a sense of accomplishment and the time to strategize rather than sit in meetings with people who aren’t stakeholders. CEOs would be advised to pay attention to HR recruitment, or else they risk being the captain of the Titanic.