Interview with Tiziano Vitale, CEO at Polk&Union, the Digital Communication Agency that launched an entire division of certified experts addressing the Healthcare and Pharma sector.
Integration and multi-channeling, but also specific know-how for a complex sector, reliability and innovation. These are some of the essential skills required for good digital pharma communication. We discuss this topic with Tiziano Vitale, CEO at Polk&Union, a digital communication and integrated marketing agency that was founded in 2007 in the USA with an Italian heart. On its tenth anniversary this year, the company – established in Rome and Seattle – launched the Polk&Union Health division. A strategic choice at a time of great technological advances in digital transformation, especially in the field of health.
In late September 2021, Polk&Union launched the ‘Polk&Union Health’ division, addressing customers in the healthcare and pharma world. Why did you choose to do so?
We decided to capitalize on decades of experience in this sector. In recent years we supported important pharma companies in their digital transformation paths. With the pandemic, the demand for strategic consulting, ad-hoc solutions and services has grown remarkably. Polk&Union has therefore invested heavily in human resources and equipment over the last two years.
The pharmaceutical market is thriving, with an average annual growth rate of 4.2% in the European Union, now strengthened by the production of anti-Covid vaccines. Our customers have an international dimension, despite being national players. Nonetheless, this market is accessible only to a few: there are some entry barriers, namely specific know-how for the sector, knowledge of regulatory aspects, such as pharmacovigilance, and occasionally a professional certificate is required to operate. For this reason, pharma companies rely on those who already have gained consolidated experience. We are certified consultants, with specific know-how on all medical verticals. In addition to internal resources, we can count on a network of associations, opinion leaders, medical writers. We are opening a Health division because we want to maintain this competitive advantage. The big medication players must be supported in defining on-target marketing and digital communication strategies. To better guide them, Polk&Union carefully studies the company’s business context. Once the objectives have been defined, the best possible digital ecosystem is structured to support an ad hoc communication plan that targets a specific audience and meets the objectives. Polk&Union also manages digital transformation projects within companies. The goal is the enhancement of digital skills, with training courses on digital tools, coaching initiatives and cooperative working.
Is communicating in healthcare a complex challenge?
The language is complex and you need relevant, responsible, solid and well-supported communication. The topic is health, so it also involves social responsibility. In times of fake news, the challenge is to create reliable communication contexts, making them accessible especially to patients.
Digital is transforming the world of pharma and therefore this sector’s marketing and communication strategies. In what scenario are you moving?
In Italy the pharmaceutical sector represents excellence in terms of both research and production. Between 2018 and 2020, exports of the entire supply chain grew by 42 percent, according to data published by Il Sole 24 Ore. In this scenario, the market of 4.0 pharma and digital health in general is full of opportunities. The transformation is driven by new technologies, which are enablers of an activity or a market. The many examples include broadband, 5G, new digital infrastructures, Big Data, artificial intelligence, machine learning. There is also a social aspect: for a technology to be successful in a market, it must find someone who adopts it. Today, the use of the web and digital tools crosscuts all generations. Everyone has access to the web and use it with a multi-device logic: from smartphones, tablets or desktops. Every day this scenario opens up new possibilities for digital marketing and communication.
A digital turning point that is changing the relationship between the different players: industry, doctors, patients?
Today the pharma sector is increasingly convinced that it must adopt a digital mindset, that is, the intention of investing in digitalization paths, which include not only communication, but also infrastructures, smart models and cooperative working. The pandemic has led to an acceleration of this process, as shown also by other leading players in the health sector. Relationships between industry, professionals and patients have been transformed more rapidly by Covid. The relationships between these three actors are now increasingly digital and less unidirectional. Doctors and patients are more proactive in seeking information, updates, solutions and answers than they were in the past.
In fact, after Covid there is much more talk of digital in healthcare …
Digital health is a broad concept. A crucial element is the growing spread of all technologies concerning ‘Connected Care’ in the citizen’s health path, which goes from prevention to treatment and follow-up. Another essential point is digital’s contribution to the new local assistance organizational models, in which telemedicine plays a leading role. This scenario also includes the new skills necessary to work in a truly digital healthcare and new forms of communication between doctors and patients or between health professionals.
The National Recovery and Resilience Plan (Pnrr) is also highly centered on digital when it deals with strengthening Italy’s national health service. New spaces are opening up for telemedicine, remote assistance, teleconsultation, remote monitoring, thanks to applications and devices. These approaches will certainly undergo a strong development. Of course, it takes time, clear guidelines and training, but the benefits are absolutely tangible.
Let’s briefly focus on how the relationship between pharma companies and patients is evolving. Is everything changing?
Patients are increasingly active and less dependent on the information forwarded by the various players in the health sector. They must be intercepted in their activity, which is multi-channel. Within the customer journey, it is necessary to identify the touchpoints that allow to intercept them and relate to them, establishing a relationship based on trust and authority. For companies this involves a change of pace: from a product-oriented vision to a patient-centered one. Furthermore, patients’ online activity returns valuable information and data that help to study behavioral patterns, naturally in compliance with the rules on privacy.
Does the latter also apply to doctors?
Of course, also doctors’ online activity is useful to gather information on behavioral models, especially for learning and professional updating needs. This is how Big Data, machine learning, processing and predictive models come into play. These tools can provide information support to pharmaceutical companies, so they can better target their actions and strategies.
Which keywords are used for digital marketing and communication in this sector?
Integration and multi-channel, first of all. It becomes essential that digital marketing strategies are structured in an integrated and multi-channel logic. ‘Integrated’ in the sense that all activities must be traced back to a single and coordinated strategy, be they events, communication plans, medical-scientific information activities, among others. ‘Multichannel’ because the audience now receives information from multiple channels.
How are the results measured?
Why does a pharmaceutical company entrust large budgets to a digital marketing and communication agency? Surely because it has an investment return. In digital, activity performances can be constantly monitored, so they can be optimized and measured. 4.0 digital transformation is also bringing innovation to this mainly technological asset, increasing data computing power (big data), sophisticating analysis quality by means of artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics: all drivers that increase ROI by stimulating investment budget reshaping in favor of digital.
Finally, here is a curiosity: where does the name Polk&Union come from?
It is the crossroads of two streets in San Francisco. The genetics of our agency, co-founded by a former Google manager of the Mountain View headquarters and a former BCGer, is American, hence our digital vocation. We are digital native, our entire organization has always been founded on digital. In the wake of Google and other large American digital companies, we try to anticipate changes and find innovative solutions and effective digital strategies to stimulate progress, create value for each customer and help them grow. For the past 10 years we have been a virtual bridge between present and future: we connect creativity with digital, passion with attention to detail, Italy with the USA. We strive to be a new type of digital communication agency, exclusively centered on the wishes and needs of our customers.