Are pharma’s TV ad strategies out of date?

Views & Analysis
Are pharmas TV ad strategies out of date

TV viewing habits are changing dramatically, and these trends have only been accelerated by COVID-19 – but Intouch’s Justin Chase says that pharma is still stuck in a traditional advertising mindset. Drawing on research from a recent whitepaper, he tells us how the industry can optimize its TV advertising for an age of hyper-targeted media and modern marketing methodology.

Pharma companies are still spending billions of dollars a year on TV advertising in the US – but many of the industry’s media strategies are based on assumptions from traditional, linear TV, despite TV consumption becoming increasingly fragmented across platforms and devices.

“With the increasing availability of on-demand video content, we’re moving away from the concept of a standard primetime TV slot,” says Justin Chase, Intouch’s EVP of media & innovation. “People don’t live their lives like that anymore. Instead, to steal a concept from Google you have this very interesting dynamic of ‘personal primetime’, meaning primetime becomes a nuanced and personal experience. Primetime for a student might be watching their favorite new show on the bus or the subway. For a mom it might be waiting to pick the kids up outside of school. The thought that we all are going to sit down to appointment viewing on a Friday night with our friends and families to watch TGIF is as out of date as those shows.

“Now, with myriad content choices across a variety of platforms, it is incredibly difficult to nail down an audience, i.e. what are they watching, where are they watching it and when? You can’t get this type of multiplatform information from linear TV data.

“It is incumbent upon advertisers to take advantage of new technologies, especially as more than three quarter of US households have connected TV (meaning TV that is connected to the internet).”

Despite the fact that the landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a better solution. Marketers can do what they always do – adapt. Both connected TV and automatic content recognition (ACR) allow advertisers to overcome the highly nuanced and personal viewing habits, by serving highly targeted ads at scale.

ACR data for example, is collected via a chip that is installed in the TV during the manufacturing process. The technology zeroes in on the unique audio or visual fingerprints attached to each piece of content and then matches snippets against an ever-growing reference library. This allows for a much more granular understanding of who is watching what and on what platform.

“There are around 120 million households that have TV in the US. Right now, we can track or target three-quarters of them with ACR. I believe that all media is going to be bought and sold programmatically in the next five years”

But pharma companies, by and large, have not updated their media plans to align with the changing viewing behaviors of their target audiences. The vast majority of plans have all the eggs going into the broadcast bucket and worse, they are using antiquated metrics, like Nielsen panel data which uses 50,000 households as a proxy for 120 million. Nielsen, to their credit, is heavily investing in ACR with Gracenote, but pharma hasn’t really taken advantage of this yet.

All of this is the subject of Intouch’s recent whitepaper, Future State: The New Media Landscape, which looks at the most prevalent trends in TV advertising and gives pharma recommendations for how to adapt.

“Pharma companies need to change everything,” says Chase. “They need to look at different ways to reach their targets, hit their goals, track their KPI scorecards – and it's not via traditional media plans. The whole media landscape is shifting, and pharma needs to pivot accordingly.”

The Holy Grail

Chase says that the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated these trends.

“No analysts could have predicted just how much COVID would impact TV consumption. We knew that linear TV was waning but we had no idea that during COVID people were going to develop such strong affinities for their video-on-demand platforms, while losing interest in their linear TV subscriptions.”

This is also happening at a time when consumers are more attuned to healthcare than ever before, and as a result are more keen to hear from pharma companies.

Chase says that this offers a huge opportunity for the industry to take advantage of highly targeted audiences by using ACR and CTV to reach out with messages that feel “authentic”.

“A great way to inform a TV campaign is to do extensive social research to understand how patients or HCPs are talking about their condition in the real world, and then reflect their own language back to them.

“One of the things that we know after 21 years of digging through terabytes of social data, is that each patient population has a highly nuanced, and sometimes even idiosyncratic, vernacular. The messages that work best are those that incorporate that vernacular.

“For example, some companies have done an amazing job of taking the language that men use to describe erectile dysfunction and incorporate it into their advertising. That stops these ads feeling like a pharma company telling people what to do.”

The power of such messaging is only enhanced when it can be targeted to more specific populations.

“Many pharma companies are not currently making a distinction between CTV and linear TV in their plans, and might consider the same creative for both,” says Chase. “That’s really missing the point. CTV and addressable TV allow us to serve ads programmatically to specific segments in sequential fashion – allowing us, for example, to target patients who are treatment-naïve with different language and creatives than we’d use with patients who are treatment-mature.”

“Then you can layer in ACR to understand who's seen what creative and through which channel. This allows you to serve different ads across those channels to the same person, effectively progressing them along their treatment journey.

“You can even go so far as to understand what actions the person took post-exposure – i.e. did they go see a doctor and fill your script after they saw your ads?”

While linear TV certainly still has its place in a brand strategy, Chase says that its influence is diminishing every year, and the pharma industry needs to start harnessing other approaches now before it finds itself completely out of touch with modern audiences.

“Most pharma brands I talk to believe they still need linear TV to get their message out and hit their goals – but that's simply not the case anymore,” he says. “Almost all the key industry players we spoke to for this whitepaper said that addressable TV has the same, if not greater, potential reach. The reality is that pharma brands are comfortable with linear TV buying –  they know the metrics, they know the KPIs, and we as brand marketers and media people need to help them understand that there are incredibly promising alternatives that can provide the same reach with greater targeting and ultimately better performance.

“There are around 120 million households that have TV in the US. Right now, we can track or target three-quarters of them with ACR. I believe that all media, not just TV, is going to be bought and sold programmatically in the next five years. The liquidity that programmatic offers is just too great to pass up. It allows you to segment, target and optimise your audiences in seconds, rather than the months it would take with a traditional media buy.”

Chase adds that companies can easily start with a linear base and transition to CTV if they are not yet comfortable with these new models.

“Once you’ve reached your initial base through linear TV you can layer in CTV in order to suppress ads to those people who saw that ad already via linear. This means that with each new ad dollar spent you are effectively reaching someone new.

“This dynamic is called de-duplicated incremental reach, and it's the Holy Grail of TV advertising right now – making sure you’re always reaching new people rather than targeting the same groups again and again.”

For more information read the full whitepaper.

About the interviewee

Justin ChaseJustin Chase is EVP, head of innovation & media at Intouch Group. Justin oversees Intouch Media and is responsible for orchestrating an innovation-centric dynamic at Intouch, taking the sensibilities of the patient, provider, payer and rep, then applying the lens of innovation, machine learning, and neural network development to solve problems and evolve the way the pharmaceutical industry thinks about marketing and media. Justin is also a frequent speaker, panelist and podcaster on some of the nation’s top networks.

About Intouch Group

Intouch Group is a privately held full-service agency network, providing creative and media services, enterprise solutions and data analytics globally through seven affiliates in eight offices, including Intouch Solutions, Intouch Proto, Intouch Seven, Intouch International, Intouch Media, Intouch B2D and Intouch Analytics. Collectively, Intouch Group employs more than 1,000 people. With a dedication to the life sciences, Intouch Group operates with the belief that there is no challenge too big to cure. Contact Intouch Group at or visit them on the web at

3 December, 2020