STUDY: Pharma Clients Really Wish Creative Agencies Would Just Listen to Them For Once

By Erik Oster 

Copywriters, get ready to describe some potential side effects in all their revolting glory.

Now that big pharma is where all the real money is (and with the demand for speed-reading voice actors at an all time high), agencies find themselves doing all they can to woo healthcare clients and keep them satisfied.

But those clients aren’t always so satisfied. In particular, they say agencies aren’t doing such a great job listening, according to a new survey of marketing executives commissioned by HCB Health.


The survey, which was conducted by an unaffiliated research agency, asked 50 medical marketers to define listening in three categories (personally, to target clients and as an agency of record) and then reveal how well their agencies did in each of the categories. Marketers defined listening in terms of one-on-one listening and listening more broadly, primarily in terms of informing agencies of client concerns and goals.

In terms of the more broad definition, 66 percent gave agencies positive marks, but only four percent said they were “extremely satisfied” and roughly a third of respondents gave agencies either neutral or negative grades. When it came to one-on-one listening, agencies did a little better. 80 percent of marketers gave their agencies positive scores, while only one fifth gave them neutral or negative ratings.

Still, only 12 percent or so said their agencies “listen extremely well.”

Clients cited “off-target strategy, inferior work quality, cost issues, and undesirable account team behavior” as potential repercussions of poor listening (and things they wish agencies did less of), while over a third of the marketers involved in the study said “agencies diminish their value when they have weak and static knowledge of their client’s business, fail to proactively introduce fresh thinking, respond poorly to feedback, and put agency interests above client interests, particularly in terms of being too revenue-focused.”

“The findings were eye-opening. What looked at first glance like good news — a majority of positive ratings across all three measures of listening — was offset when you considered how few respondents gave their agencies top marks and how many gave them failing or neutral marks,” HBC Health partner and chief strategy officer Nancy Beesley told PharmaLive. “‘Slightly satisfied’ or ‘moderately satisfied’ isn’t good enough for most agencies. Clearly, healthcare agencies need to do a better job of listening.”

Agencies seem to treat pharma clients like they do so many others: as simpletons who obviously don’t know how to promote their own businesses.

So listen up, or risk losing that big account.