From writing copy at his father’s PR firm to being a set designer for Broadway theatres, Jed Beitler, worldwide chairman & CEO, Sudler & Hennessey, a health-care communication company, has dabbled in various fields. He was even accepted at a medical school, but opted for health-care communications. In the past 25 years, Beitler has worked for companies owned by Omnicom, Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam and WPP. Currently, he is a partner in Sudler & Hennessey.
His agency’s client list includes Glaxo Smithkline Beecham, Dr. Reddys Laboratories, Johnson & Johnson Medical, among others. Sudler & Hennessey set up shop in India in 2002, and Beitler talks of the challenges his agency faced in an interview with Mint. Here are some excerpts:
What does a health care communications company like yours bring to the table?
India is a vital market, for health care and beyond. Reports suggest that there is a 150-million middle-class population, of which at least 50 million can afford western medication. With the rapid spread of chronic ailments such as diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory problems, drug companies partnered by communications agencies can contribute to patient education and training programmes.
We talk with heads of hospital groups, drug makers, over-the-counter drugs, foods and packaged goods companies, and various governmental and non-governmental bodies on the challenges they face both from a marketing standpoint as well as an education and communications point of view.
What are the challenges you face in a market such as India?
There are many. Intellectual property laws and policies; cultural issues, attitudes and access to health care. There are almost 700,000 people who call themselves doctors, ranging from Ayurvedic practitioners to highly specialized doctors. Perhaps only half this number has gone to medical school. These are only some of the challenges.
Our clients are still learning what an agency such as ours can provide them and that we aren’t an ad agency. We are far more than that: offering traditional promotional services, providing strategic consulting, market research, medical and consumer education, sales training, patient relationship marketing, PR, evets marketing, etc.
We are there, acting as an extra set of eyes, ears and brains to help our clients overcome their marketing and sales challenges.
Some laws restrict the advertisement of health-care products. How do you plan to overcome that challenge?
We are creating a lot of programmes that focus on education and awareness. But these are not restricted to medical professionals. They extend to patients and caretakers. In India, the doctor-patient relationship is somewhat reverential, and we would like to see a partnership, where the patient is more aware and able to seek better health care. The challenge for us is to figure out a way to make that information available and relevant to the consumer.
So, if we focus on educating a community about home hygiene, the challenge would be to find the right medium to disseminate that information. Do one-on-one interactions work better? Does the online medium work better or is something more rudimentary required? In Africa, for example, it might make more sense to have a tribal shaman disseminate the information. Finding what is considered the best, most respected source of information—that’s important.
Most of the wars fought in the Indian drug industry have hinged largely on the cost factor. How would Sudler & Hennessey address this challenge?
Cost is an issue and will continue to be a major issue. In a situation where the government bears a major burden of the cost (of health care), it’s only natural that they will look to reducing their expenditure. However, at the same time, consumers are getting more involved and there is a clear rise in health care consumerism. People, especially the middle-class, are spending a lot more money on health care and the general increase in awareness is also leading them to seek the best brand. Which is where we come in, helping companies build stronger brands.
There has been a debate about communications companies buying stakes in contract research organizations (CROs) that conduct clinical trials. The allegation is that the research tends to read “like an advertisement for the drug”. Time to time, communications companies have bought or taken stake in CROs. However, at no point is there a misrepresentation of facts. Research has to be pristine. There is a tremendous need to educate and communicate— whether it’s with consumers or health-care providers—and research helps us do that. So, in one sense, such decisions are natural. However, if you’re asking me if we are planning to buy a CRO in India, then the answer is no.