Maybe it’s your decision; perhaps the process is a mandate procurement. Regardless of who starts it, the RFP experience is not for the faint of heart, particularly if you are a healthcare exhibitor. You listened to experts tell you how to design an RFP, you’ve argued internally about the types of questions your RFP should include, and now you must decide who gets a copy. Do you look for a niche marketing agency? Do you take a chance with an agency without healthcare experience—but that does ‘wow’ work for exhibitors in other industries? Do you include marketing and/or advertising agencies that have minimal exhibit experience but want to be considered (perhaps the same agency that created product graphics)? For that matter, how do you handle requests from agencies who want to be part of the process?
In the healthcare industry, niche marketing agencies are very tempting on one level—and not so much on another. Let’s consider the pros and con:
Niche marketing agencies in healthcare are experienced in the industry. Right from the start, the learning curve is shortened. No one on the agency team asks, ‘What’s an ISI?’ or looks puzzled when you request two “detail stations.”. And because they understand the industry, they understand privacy concerns and other issues which in other industries might be swept under the rug.
Niche marketing agencies have—or should have—an in-depth knowledge of the industry. Not just “healthcare” as a category but specifically pharma, devices and equipment, biopharma, digital health, and so on. If any agency says, “Oh yeah, we do a lot of healthcare,” probe further. Exactly what type of companies are currently in their portfolios? Pharma has its own environment and is probably the most often discussed category. If the agency claims to have pharma experience, learn whether it is current—or if they built one exhibit ten years ago. Device and equipment manufacturers have entirely different needs from pharma. For example, they usually need room for demos. Biotech is in a class by itself because so many of the companies in this sector are emerging; an agency working with them needs knowledge of how to make an exhibit compelling when no product is available. And finally, there are many new categories of healthcare challenging to the status quo—and the FDA. Many of these companies have digital products or wearables and don’t often exhibit at traditional medical shows. You are more likely to find them at technology shows such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The right niche agency for you will be a match between your needs and their experience.
Niche marketing agencies are familiar with the regulatory landscape. Ah, everyone’s favorite perception of the perils of healthcare marketing: the regulatory landscape. Unfortunately, this obsession has eclipsed what’s possible and the drive toward engagement. The right niche marketing agency knows this doesn’t have to be the case and will embrace “creative bravery.” Henri Matisse famously said, “Creativity takes courage.” But, how do you start being brave with your creativity? In industries subject to intense regulatory scrutiny, you need to overcome hesitation to present bold designs or engagement techniques that are not necessarily ‘safe,’ or in other words, the same old, same old. What is creative bravery—and what is ‘safe’? Cannes Lions gives us a useful definition: “Work that takes chances in pursuit of excellence and changes the status quo. The investment in creative brilliance and bravery is a safe business decision.” If the niche agency doesn’t embrace this vision, think twice about their suitability.
Medical associations, general contractors, and show managers are familiar with niche marketing agencies. Do you want reliable recommendations before you deliver your RFP? Of course, you should do your own due diligence. But don’t forget to talk to the people who see agencies year in, year out. Ask the medical associations what they know about specific agencies. If they have no comment, that tells you something. Ask general contractors and the managers for the shows you attend which are the best companies to work with, what companies know what they’re doing. The niche agency for you is one known to these groups, one that has a reputation for taking care of their customers, for being collaborative and efficient.
Niche marketing agencies understand how to plan for large, multi-show programs. It’s a rare healthcare exhibitor who exhibits at only one show a year. The right agency will appreciate your overall program budget, and how you break it out for each show: your space costs, the graphics you need, the properties that will work best. They will understand the need for modularity and scalability to make your multi-show program work. They will suggest and supply rental assets for when you must exhibit at more than one show on the same days in different locales—or when you need to augment your properties because you reserved a space calling for an expansion to your existing exhibit. They will talk to you about transshipping and warehousing—and how you can save money by taking advantage of their industry presence.
Niche marketing agencies are adept at presenting creative concepts to your internal stakeholders. Let’s cut to the chase: you aren’t the only one making decisions. Your brand team has to like the agency, maybe your company leadership, possibly even sales. You want an agency that knows how to present effectively, that knows how to sell the work you do with them. You want presentable, articulate, knowledgeable people. This agency represents a big part of your team, and you want your team to appear consistent. If you sense a problem that is going to be a stumbling block for your internal customers, deal with it upfront. Perhaps the account group needs a new leader. If the creative lead for the agency has multiple facial piercings and your company is very conservative, bring the issue up before the presentation and get someone else in front of the group. (The reason face tattoos are called ‘job stoppers’ is that they limit potential employment.) We’re talking about your program, your career, your reputation. The pierced creative director might be an excellent team member and the nicest person in the world, but for purposes of presentation, get someone else.
With the included caveats, those are the advantages of working with a niche marketing agency. What about the downside?
Niche marketing agencies sometimes appear to phone it in. When reviewing the agency’s portfolio, you might be thinking to yourself, “I want to stand out. All their work looks alike.” That is a legitimate concern. Sometimes agencies have gone too long without the infusion of new blood. If the portfolio makes you yawn or if you feel that you’ve seen a particular design or configuration too many times on the show floor, keep searching.
Niche marketing agencies often play it safe. Once bitten, twice shy, or so the saying goes. Agencies and creatives whose work has been shot down by companies like yours will want to avoid ‘creative bravery’ and take an approach that has worked in the past. Usually, that work is tired and derivative. On the one hand, you can understand their hesitation or fear; on the other hand, this isn’t the team you want for your exhibit program.
Niche marketing agencies have experienced rejection, undue scrutiny, and unnecessary challenges when presenting their work. This goes back to what we said earlier. You need people with presentation skills. The agency needs to display commitment, passion, and a robust creative rationale when they present. Your internal team has the right to challenge the agency—but the agency has to be steeped sufficiently in the work that they can meet these challenges. There doesn’t have to be an unpleasant confrontation but the agency needs to be able to engage in a professional give and take of ideas without getting hostile. You want grownups!
Niche marketing agencies can appear to be more expensive. Because the agency is more specialized and has more in-depth knowledge of your industry, you might assume you are paying a premium. Be very upfront about your budget—and monitor how many people are involved in your account, how much you are being billed hourly for their participation, and what options you have. As an educated exhibit professional, you have to know that when your team is knowledgeable, your costs are not as high as if you have a bunch of rookies. You have to monitor and question expenses. If you want people on site who can handle any contingency, ask what the cost for that support will be. Moreover, your agency should come to you with cost-cutting suggestions that put your program dollars toward customer engagement, not hidden costs like material handling and freight.
Niche marketing agencies don’t keep up with best practices across the exhibit industry. Let’s say that you are attending shows outside the healthcare industry to see if there are engagement tactics or other experiential technologies that can be adopted for your program. When you come back to the office and tell your agency about your day trip to CES, and they don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s a red flag. On the other hand, attending CES with your agency, and discussing elements that can be useful in your program is a super idea. But if the agency is so immersed in healthcare that they don’t pay attention to the broader industry, if they are either dismissive of your ideas or merely unaware, you have the wrong partner.
Niche marketing agencies don’t deliver the ‘wow’ factor we want. Since the introduction of the PhRMA Code in 2002, healthcare exhibits have become progressively dull—as we’ve seen, not because they have to be. Attendees, even healthcare professionals, are demanding an experience. It’s what we have all come to expect. You can’t give out golf balls and umbrellas like in the old days, but you can do fabulous things with lighting, projection mapping, any kind of movement you can imagine. And that’s just for starters. Your agency should be delivering those ideas, and if they’re not, find someone who will.
A niche marketing agency appears to be your best bet, but not all niche marketing agencies are created equal. Issue your RFP to the agencies that will make the best partners and that go beyond merely having a specialty. It’s an exercise well worth your time.