Agency perspectives: building lasting relationships with pharma

Ashish Rishi

Cetas Kinetic

Behind every great pharma solution you will find a trusted advisor – an advisor who can act as a sage counsellor, providing insights and directing strategy collaboratively. With their candour and expertise, the trusted advisor is a pivotal player in the exploration of new ideas, discovering solutions to critical problems, illuminating organisational blind spots and navigating the road ahead. This trusted advisor is and should be the agencies working with pharma. Whether it is PR, advertising, medical education, digital marketing or social media consultancies, we all have a role to ensure patient outcomes are improved.

The dearth of talent in medcomms is ever decreasing, look to any agency and they are struggling to find an account director / scientific director or top management (the reason for this is a separate topic and will not be discussed in this article).

Do we need to change the agency model? Or do we ensure preparedness before working with pharma on a particular campaign or solution as a trusted advisor?

Previous research has shown the pharma marketers on average work with between one and five agencies, so how do we ensure the agency stands out and builds these lasting relationships as a trusted advisor?

To understand what pharma marketers need, we must understand their motivations. The pharma marketing teams promote from the sales force typically. Therefore pharma marketers need training in the skills that will make them successful marketers. Agencies are best placed to help them reach their professional goals.

What do pharma marketers want from their agencies?

Pharma marketers need the agency to be the trusted advisor, agencies can achieve this by demonstrating their commitment to managing the brand, by providing insights, making an impact on the business of the brand, by leading their thinking. Tell them what the business is going to look like five or ten years from now. To be a trusted advisor the agency also needs to consider what extra efforts they are making to ensure the brand succeeds, this could be achieved by sitting in on brand planning meetings, for instance.

“Pharma marketers need the agency to be the trusted advisor, agencies can achieve this by demonstrating their commitment to managing the brand”

The pharma marketer needs to also feel that the agency represents a good return on investment. This can be calculated by conducting an internal brand MOT, with a view to considering the client perception of value for money. This can be calculated simply:

Figure 1: Client perception of value for money in pharma / agency relationship

Value for money is an important factor to consider in being a trusted advisor, as 90% of clients will use results as their overriding criteria in the value for money equation.

Certainly one area that agencies lack in is providing more benchmarking studies and comparing them to their competitors. Competitor insight can be the difference between being a vendor or being a trusted advisor by providing the pharma client with information about competitors in what they are doing and why they are doing it.

A trusted advisor to the pharma client must also ensure that the following is demonstrated:

• Permanent impact in target market

• Quickest impact and results

• Most disruptive to competitors

• Ease implementation.

To summarise, to be the trusted advisor to the pharma marketer, ensure your agency displays the following qualities:

1. The ability to deliver results necessary on time and to satisfaction.

2. Ability to build a partnership where the agency almost acts as an outsourced marketing department. This means knowledge of business, individuals, preferred ways of working.

3. Ensure the client and trusted advisor are bound together with honesty, no lies or bluffing and a desire to meet and exceed expectations.

4. Integrity, sealed with a mutual respect and a professional understanding of each part’s area of expertise.

After outlining the needs of the pharma marketer, let us look at how an agency can achieve this.


This is an open-ended argument. Ability needs to be defined? A high number of medical communications agencies are promoting scientific expertise. However is this most pertinent? Marketing expertise needs to be considered a key to achieving results with your clients. The team working with the pharma marketer needs to be considered to have a mix of medical, marketing and project management excellence.


To build strong working relationships with clients, consider the following:

• Respond to requests by emphasising what you can do to help meet them.

• Follow through and do what you say you will do.

• Listen without passing judgment and do not rush in to give advice that is often not as thought through as hoped.

• Communicate with respect in every interaction that should not be solely through email. Consider investing in more face to face time and pick up the phone more.

• Focus on issues, not personalities, when you discuss work matters and problems.

• When differences in views or ideas occur, work first to understand them from the marketer’s perspective.

• Be direct and sincere as normal practice.

• Use humour!

“Pharma marketers have commented that partnership working is the most lacking in agencies”

Pharma marketers have commented that partnership working is the most lacking in agencies. It could be stated that agencies need to listen to their clients more and they can achieve this by participating in and hosting:

• Client panels

• User groups

• Engagement debriefings

• Attending industry meetings with clients

• Opinion surveys

• Feedback questionnaires


Clients work with professionals whom they trust. Building trust is an ongoing process. By keeping your agreements with the clients you will gain trust. The key is not to overpromise, and remember the phenomena known, as kowtowing is never acceptable. Even something as small as the time you have scheduled an appointment is an agreement. Each time you break an agreement with the client, you break the trust.

It is also important to create realistic client expectations. The role of the trusted advisor is to help the client to understand exactly what you will do for them. Put boundaries around what is included in your service and what is not. Living up to the expectations created by the trusted advisor helps clients to take you at your word. Something that is often forgotten but always reassuring to a client is to help them to understand the agencies processes too. Another key role of the trusted advisor is to explain your plan and strategy. Not only does the client need to understand your office procedure but also what the plan and strategy is for his/her particular case. This will help the client to know what to expect and when to expect it. Trust comes when the client feels confident and comfortable with the plan and the strategy.


The word “integrity” is a noun that means “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” Integrity is a combination of all the principles outlined above, i.e., having the ability, building the relationship and developing the trust.

“Integrity cannot be faked, it is in its authenticity that an agency moves from being a vendor to a trusted advisor”

Integrity cannot be faked, it is in its authenticity that an agency moves from being a vendor to a trusted advisor.


Agencies can get so involved in project management or end result and revenue focussed that client satisfaction is disregarded. All the hard work by the project team is undermined by the fact that the client does not see the value for money, or view the emotional cost of achieving a campaign too high. In an economic era where budgets are diminishing, value needs to be highlighted and impressed upon to ensure that agencies transcend vendor type relationships to becoming trusted advisors and potentially have an indirect impact on improving patient outcomes.

About the author:

Ashish Rishi, B.Sc., M.Sc. is Owner, Director of Cetas Kinetic, a healthcare training consultancy providing leadership, coaching and advisory consultancy to pharma, HCPs and medcomms agencies.

How can agencies build lasting relationships with pharma?