Agencies Partner to Serve Hesitant Digital Pharma Marketers

As drug makers, ad networks, and even Google clamor for government regulators to settle on rules for digital pharma marketing, two agencies are pairing up to better serve the befuddled pharmaceutical industry. Digital agency Zemoga and pharma agency Palio have officially launched Pixels and Pills, a joint service they hope will assist drug marketers in the scary, yet increasingly critical world of digital marketing.

“What we’ve done in the past eight years is honed our chops…to the point where it’s fluid enough [that] we can really drive solutions for clients,” said Guy Mastrion, chief global creative officer for pharma agency Palio. The two companies have linked in the past on campaigns for clients including stem cell banking firm LifebankUSA and the maker of an acne medication. Mastrion worked with DJ Edgerton, CEO of Zemoga, at Saatchi and Saatchi.

The goal of the Pixels and Pills service is to provide pharma clients with one point of contact to simplify the campaign process and better assist clients in integrating digital and traditional channels. Much of what pharma brands need to do is bridge the online-offline gap, and that means not only reaching out to consumers, but to doctors. For example, the agency service might run a digital branding campaign that reinforces drug usage recommendations in addition to managing dialogue with physicians.

“Very often these [direct-to-consumer] efforts…they fail in the doctor’s office because the doctor’s not prepared properly for the discussion,” said Mastrion, adding that more and more the Internet is “powering that dialogue” between consumers and their physicians.

The companies expect to complement one another, as Zemoga’s strengths lie in digital media and technology, while Palio focuses on the labyrinthine pharma industry. Zemoga, for instance, does not have the knowledge to navigate requirements associated with reporting adverse effects of their drugs to the Food and Drug Administration – a key concern of pharma companies engaging in social media. Yet, the digital shop does have the technical expertise to facilitate digital communication without putting drug makers at risk of regulatory backlash.

“Getting digital initiatives through regulatory approval takes a very refined skill set,” said Edgerton.

Indeed, the pharmaceutical industry and the companies that assist them in marketing efforts eagerly await long overdue guidance from the FDA on how to communicate in digital and social media environments with consumers while following rules about reporting adverse effects. The FDA held a two-day hearing dedicated to such issues last year and is currently accepting comments regarding pharma and medical product marketing online. That comment period ends February 28.

Pharma marketers are also intimidated by social media due to lack of control over brand messages, and the threat of class-action lawsuits brought as a result of consumers using social tools to report adverse drug effects.

Google, like many others, sees dollar signs in the mostly-untapped digital pharma market. The company is running around “six or seven” AdWords campaigns for pharma brands including psoriasis drug Enbrel, which uses one of its pharma-specific ad units. Google intends to mention YouTube and display advertising in its own comments to the FDA, according to Amy Cowan, head of industry, health, for Google. Cowan was interviewed at a recent pharma industry event for the Pixels and Pills blog.

People are having conversations on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Web forums, and elsewhere online about their brands every day. Pixels and Pills recognized the need to condition pharma marketers to the idea of interacting in these spheres, despite the regulatory hurdles and regulatory obscurity. One way it hopes to do that is through a Twitter tool the agency partners developed. The Health Tweeder – a research tool for the two agencies as much as for the pharma industry – aggregates recent Twitter posts about disease states and related topics including sleep disorders, cancer, HIV, and gastroenterology. The platform visualizes each topic as its own pastel-colored petri dish, teeming with conversational data awaiting further examination.

It exemplifies the collaborative nature of the agency partnership, as the technology was built by Zemoga while the semantic filtering was organized by Palio. “In the backend of the database there’s a lot of scrubbing of the data,” said Edgerton. “We qualify a lot of these tweets…it’s not just a straight up [TweetDeck].”

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