Agencies incorporate healthcare capabilities

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Direct agencies and service providers are hiring high-ranking employees and creating specialized practices for their healthcare work at an unprecedented rate.

However, healthcare reform is not the only reason for the shift, according to industry experts. The aging of baby boomers, improved digital communications technologies and economics are all cited as stimuli for this industry shift.

Becky Chidester, who was promoted to the newly created position of president of Wunderman World Health last month, said clients are looking for agencies that are more sophisticated both in terms of global business and regulation, as well as digital work.

"We are seeing more clients who are looking for a global healthcare solution, and in that category, you have to bring not only your expertise of the vertical business, but how to launch and manage global businesses and brands," she said. "There's also a greater sophistication around CRM. Pharma companies used to be very conservative in how they engaged their prospects and customers, but they have become more sophisticated with the use of digital and the web."

Wunderman is far from alone in bolstering its healthcare practice. In recent months, interactive agency Razorfish introduced a dedicated healthcare division known as Razorfish Health. Independent digital firm Rosetta acquired healthcare marketing agency Wishbone, while direct agency Hacker Group introduced a health insurance practice in March known as HealthHG.

Seth Berman, director of marketing at Blue Shield of California, said "one emerging trend is that the digital agencies are getting in on the act."

"A lot of them often start with the pharmaceutical companies and build out from there," he said. Berman added that experience not only in healthcare, but also in Blue Shield's specific practice area, is a top priority when considering an agency.

Tom Reid, chief strategist at HealthHG, said that healthcare's growing share of the gross domestic product, the number of Baby Boomers about to hit age 65, and healthcare reform have all pushed direct agencies to strengthen their healthcare capabilities.

"Healthcare has been a growth industry in all aspects, from pharmaceuticals to individual healthcare insurance," he said. "Another major aspect is the boomer population. The fact is companies, whether pharmaceutical or healthcare companies, need people who do a good job of helping to drive these people to healthier behavior. One way to do that is smart communications strategy."

Reid added that the number of healthcare and insurance industry clients hiring agencies actually dropped during the debate over healthcare reform, but that trend has reversed.

"There are a lot of RFPs out there now," he said. "The healthcare debate actually stopped people and a lot of things froze up. We're back in full swing now, and the types of services being sought are more comprehensive and complex, and much more focused on database marketing and cultivation strategies."

Healthcare-related marketers, from insurance companies to the doctors themselves, have also accepted the importance of digital marketing in recent years, noted Katy Thorbahn, SVP and GM at Razorfish Health. Healthcare reform has only pushed that trend forward, she added.

"One of the major tenants of healthcare reform is that people such as doctors and insurance systems will be compensated around patient outcomes," she said. "That dynamic has companies looking at digital, where we can have very powerful information and a tool-delivery system."

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