For years, IT and healthcare have been seen as the two fastest
growing segments of the PR industry. Last year the glory went to the
techies, helped by the dotcom phenomenon. However, given the recent
downturn in the US economy and its impact on the IT sector, the medics
may yet have the last laugh.
The fact that for once no out-and-out healthcare specialists have made
this year's tables of fastest-growing agencies (see page 37) does not
mean the sector had a bad year. The multi-discipline networks with
healthcare practices, such as Hill & Knowlton, GCI/APCO and BSMG,
continue to expand aggressively. While a couple of the specialists,
Medical Action Communications and Lowe Fusion Healthcare, stood still,
others report-ed growth, ranging from 16% at Mun-ro & Forster to HCC De
Healthcare is a remarkably buzzing sector, with distinct
characteristics. For a start, it's wide-ranging.
At one end, with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, it is close to a lot
of other consumer PR, though with its own strict regulations about what
can be fairly claimed. A fair example would be a recent media campaign
marshalled by Munro & Forster, drawing attention to the high levels of
fatigue in modern society. This was for Boehringer's Pharmaton capsules
- ginseng with vitamins and minerals.
It also stretches right back to initial research. For instance, HCC De
Facto occupies a specialist niche working for biotechnology and life
science companies at the start of the pharmaceutical development chain.
Much of it is a corporate task, promoting a credible image for young
Because it's so specialised, managing director Richard Cripps says most
of his competition comes from a handful of similar specialists in the
US, whose reach extends to Europe. In turn, he gets 30% to 40% of his
income from continental clients because, he says, there are no
equivalents in Germany or France.
The huge investments involved in developing modern drugs means
multinational corporations dominate the sector. There are fewer and
fewer of these because of mergers - SmithKline Beecham, for instance,
got together with Glaxo Wellcome to form GlaxoSmithkline.
Many PR agencies work for the same handful of clients. In this sector,
it is not that if you work for company A, you can't work for company
It is much more product-specific: if you're working on a heart drug for
one corporation, you're unlikely to be allow-ed to take on a competing
PR is important for several reasons. Not least, it can set the scene
before the official launch of a new product. It can push the boundaries
of what's allowed more easily than advertising and it tends to be
Some aspects of the PR brief, such as recruiting doctors and patients
for clinical trials, may surprise outsiders. Although other PR agencies
claim to have been offering this for some time, it's a new addition to
'I would never have guessed there was a PR role in this, but there is,'
says GCI/APCO chairman Adrian Wheeler. 'Often it needs to be a worldwide
trial. There are so many going on these days that it is a challenge to
find hospitals and research departments willing to participate, and then
attract the patient numbers.
'Obviously, this has to be done on a purely information basis - you
can't 'sell' a drug to a patient - but fortunately you don't have to. If
people are suffering from difficult conditions, they are often keen to
Cohn & Wolfe, whose income from healthcare rose by almost one-third last
year, has added a policy unit to its practice. The idea is to provide
expert help to clients to understand the changes happening in the
National Health Service, and ensure that corporate and product
information reaches the right people.
Given the constant state of flux in the NHS, this might appear to be no
more than common sense. Shire Hall also has a dedicated unit, and UK
managing director Sarah Matthew says she cannot understand why most of
her competitors don't.
'There is an opportunity here to help clients understand the nature of
the changes, and to identify new customers and stakeholders resulting
from the introduction of primary care organisations and so on,' she
'When change is introduced, there's a tendency to get in a flat spin,
but in reality it's a question of understanding the agenda and the
Patient empowerment is one of the key trends in the sector, leading to a
relentless growth in demand for information. Alison Miles, formerly with
Grayling, and now managing director at Ruder Finn, says the distinction
between 'ethical' and 'consumer' healthcare continues to blur.
'You have a bunch of aware and confident consumers out there who are
educated about their health,' she adds. 'The chances of them going into
a surgery or pharmacy and questioning what is going on is much greater
Hill & Knowlton has merged its separate teams because of the blurring of
boundaries, the movement of products from prescription-only to pharmacy
recommended or OTC, and the demand for consumer education. 'You need to
combine your skills,' says chairman David McLaren. 'It has worked well
for us.Our medical knowledge group is doing well and if you have the
right offer in all these markets there is lots of opportunity.'
The appetite for information is closely tied to the expansion of the
web. Julie Flexen, managing director of consumer business at Munro &
Forster, says that it is playing a huge role. Now that the panic to get
online is over, however, she finds that client emphasis is switching to
developing the right links with appropriate web sites, including, for
instance, trade-only purchasing channels.
Working for pharmaceutical companies frequently involves public affairs
assignments - lobbying, in plain terms. This explains why Westminster
specialist PPS' presence in the table. It is a requirement that also
suits BSMG Worldwide, which last year absorbed the leading public
affairs independent, BJW.
'Healthcare is our smallest practice, but also the fastest growing,'
says BSMG chief executive David Brain. 'The sector is not
recession-proof, but it is less affected than others.'
GCI/APCO, another group with a strong public affairs offering, has
strengthened its healthcare side through the acquisition of Maureen
Cropper PR, an agency with an income of pounds 500,000 specialising in
Manning Selvage & Lee has beefed up on this discipline too. A decision
to pull all of the PR together under the MS&L brand follows the
formation of Bcom3 from the merger between ad agency groups Leo Burnett
The rejig includes the transfer of healthcare specialist Interscience,
albeit with the loss of a few senior people who saw this as an
opportunity to move on to other things.
TOP 25 HEALTHCARE PR AGENCIES
Rank Agency Income 2000 Healthcare
1 Medical Action Communications 10,200,000 10,200,000
2 The Shire Hall Group 7,019,000 7,019,000
3 Hill & Knowlton UK 28,934,000 4,080,000
4 GCI/APCO 16,282,000 2,931,000
5 BSMG Worldwide 17,919,000 2,867,000
6 Ketchum 10,570,000 2,643,000
7 Cohn & Wolfe 8,409,000 2,607,000
8 Fleishman-Hillard UK 6,426,000 2,570,000
9 Grayling 9,291,000 2,035,000
10 HCC De Facto Group 1,956,000 1,956,000
11 Edelman PR Worldwide 10,458,000 1,882,000
12 Munro & Forster Communications 2,678,000 1,875,000
13 Countrywide Porter Novelli 20,906,000 1,610,000
14 Ruder Finn UK 2,410,000 1,446,000
15 Lowe Fusion Healthcare 1,328,000 1,328,000
16 Sante Communications 1,039,000 1,039,000
17 Weber Shandwick Worldwide 31,929,000 958,000
18 Biss Lancaster 11,282,000 790,000
19 Myriad Public Relations 1,123,000 674,000
20 Manning Selvage & Lee 4,872,000 633,000
21 The EuroPR Group 1,664,000 499,000
22 Nexus Choat 4,256,000 426,000
23 PPS Group 3,088,000 401,000
24 The Red Consultancy 5,678,000 341,000
25 BMA Communications 1,908,000 267,000