At the last SHSMD conference, I walked exhibit hall. Something … was … off. I had been going to this conference and the Healthcare Marketing and Strategies Summit for almost two decades. Something was different. It took me another hour of walking past the vendor booths to realize what it was: I couldn’t tell the difference between advertising agencies, CRM providers, PR, content and web development firms.

The web development shops wanted to brag about driving new patient volume, which means they now have their own lead generation solution, AKA advertising. The health care CRM companies want to be the end to end supplier, including creative, which had been the purview of the ad agency world. The content publication firms now have their own marketing and advertising solutions. Again, what had been the ad agency’s turf.

As it turns out, all the firms were speaking the same language and promising the same things: we drive business results. Either by increasing revenue or by lowering costs. Wealth creation or cost reduction have always been the playbook of professional services firms like ad agencies.  

But it was the solution set that was the area of distinction, with ad agencies making these promises with advertising solutions. But now, adjacent firms have encroached so deeply into the ad agency space that agencies have no choice but to look and sound more like their competitive category brethren.

Are ad agencies on their way out? Listen to this podcast episode on TouchPoint Media with our friend, Chris Boyer. We talk about how agencies like Hailey Sault have evolved to help better support their clients’ needs.

Four Reasons for the Convergence of Firms Competing with Ad Agencies

I see four reasons why web development shops, PR firms, CRM companies and others have converged on the ad agency’s turf.

1. Greed

As the marketing dollar shrinks, firms (ad agencies and others) are seeking to take more share of their client’s thinning budgets.

2. Digital

The digital reason is twofold. To win patients today, you need technology, which has been the Achilles’ heel of agencies. (Most agencies have been notorious foot-draggers for adopting digital into their canon of services.) In response to the inevitable need for digital solutions, the agencies bought or partnered to offer digital. But most never embraced the fundamental differences between digital and non-digital solutions.

The second reason digital has brought about the competitive convergence is that technology in health care doesn’t typically play well in same sandbox … in other words, a truly seamless digital experience is often the exception and not the rule. (A simple example: the lack of patient-friendly online appointment scheduling.)  So to win share of market, firms outside the ad agency landscape have built their own end to end models, thereby leaving agencies out in the cold.

3. Fear of the future

We can’t predict the future, so agencies hedge bets. If agencies look a little like this, and a little like that, then maybe, the thinking goes, agencies can be relevant based on how the wind blows.

4. Changes to the buying audience

Perhaps the biggest reason health care ad agencies are on the endangered species list has to do with their traditional buyers: the Chief Marketing Officers.

There are four changes CMOs are experiencing that have a ripple effect for the efficacy of ad agencies:

  1. Increased pressure for results: most agencies have finally woken up that marketing metrics, those warm and fuzzy KPIs, don’t pay the bills. Clients today need to prove their worth, and that proof most often requires dollar signs and lots of zeros.
  2. Changes to the type of results required: if we take accountable care at face value, then grabbing new patients might not be the most noble goal, but rather keeping people well. And ad agencies are not historically qualified to change behaviors other than elicit a purchase decision.
  3. Role changes: the Chief Marketing Officer role and title continues an important evolution to reflect new and necessary areas of innovation with the organization. My friend and colleague, Mardy, wrote a post on alternative titles for Chief Marketing Officers, I highly recommend a read. For now, though, just consider the titles that have sprung up in the last decade:
  • Chief Growth Officer
  • Chief Value Officer
  • Chief Brand Officer
  • Chief Strategy Officer
  • Chief Experience Officer
  • Chief Innovation Officer

Not every CMO will step into these roles and titles, but it’s easy to see that the CMO is under even more scrutiny to be relevant and have a position of influence within the organization.

4. Changing perspectives: Many marketing leads in health care today come from different industries, with different expectations of agency roles. The traditional agency focused on health care might seem antiquated to a marketing lead who has been tasked with innovating for future patients and growth. Especially when her competitors are no longer Main Street hospitals down the street who all use the same playbook compared to mega giants like Cleveland Clinic or Amazon.

So where does that leave health care marketing agencies?


The first thing I advocate is to look at our industry and contribution differently.

I wrote a Medium article about why I left a firm I co-owned to join Hailey Sault. The premise is that I see only two paths for health care brands: irrelevancy or sacred trust.

The irrelevancy path

People use you because they have to, there’s no other choice, or changing isn’t worth it. Your brand is a commodity or a monopoly. Depending on where you are in your career, you may decide you can wait for the inevitable storm to hit because you’ll be out by the time the place floods.

The sacred trust path

People use you because they love you, because you improve their health and lives. It’s work on purpose, full of innovation, full of trial and error, and full of love and calling. This is messy work, but noble work.

I’m not sure that either path is without its positives or negatives. But I suspect the agencies that evolve for their own future relevancy will strive to bring solutions to brands that want to pursue the path of sacred trust.

The second thing I advocate for agencies to remain relevant is to define the undefinable.

I probably should explain what I mean.

We’re seeing more and more clients come to us at Hailey Sault for help fixing problems that aren’t “advertising” problems. For example, we have a client who has a pretty radical approach to how they provide primary care.

In their model, there’s:

  • No co-pay
  • Most every medication prescribed is free to the patient
  • Doctors get to spend at least 30 minutes with each patient
  • Once a patient does a personalized health assessment, our client can spot diabetes, heart disease and other disease states long before symptoms manifest, when those conditions can be prevented.

Our client’s challenge is that this model is so new to their patients, many don’t take advantage of all the services. The patient, so used to the expensive health care model, where even a simple exam racks up the bill, is skittish about using our client’s services, even though they say, It’s free and we can help you prevent heart disease.

It’s not an easy tactical solution. It goes beyond words and copy. There’s a lot of deep work in understanding the biases and fears of our client’s audience. There’s a lot of discovering “micro-moments” where we can help with positive behavior changes.

Here’s another example of defining the undefinable. We have another client who has amazing outcomes, raving fan patients, and who is recognized as true leaders in their category. But it’s not enough to drive new patients to their programs. The client came to us and said, What’s not working? Why aren’t we converting more new patients? We found a few streamlined messaging opportunities for the client, along with optimizing their landing pages, the low-hanging fruit stuff. But the problem and solution were deeper-rooted than the obvious stuff (that they didn’t need us for).

And that’s what I’d say about the agency of the future. They don’t think like an agency. They don’t think in ad solutions. They start with business challenges. They immerse themselves in the business of their clients, the operations, the throughput. The agency of the future also thinks in products and services.

They might say, “You offer this product now. But it seems like there’s a whole new audience you could serve if you also offered this product. Let’s build it together. Let’s help you move along the path of sacred trust.”

And as long as there are massive challenges to solve, agencies of the future will have a future.

9 Questions that drive next level health care marketing plans