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With the integration of Ashfield Health, Evoke plans for health marketing’s future

By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

Evoke Mind+Matter

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Health article

June 17, 2022 | 7 min read

Last week, health specialist agency Evoke announced the integration of Ashfield Health’s marketing and comms agencies into a single global brand. The Drum sat down with two of the agency’s leaders to talk integration, the healthcare industry’s seismic shifts in the last two years, and their ambitions for a more open health marketing landscape.

Global health agency Evoke recently announced the integration of the agencies formerly operating under the umbrella of Ashfield Health into a single brand that will use the Evoke name.

The move creates one of the world’s largest specialist marketing and communications agencies, employing over 1,400 people worldwide and commanding $300m in revenue. Reid Connolly stays on as chief exec; he’s joined at the top by former Ashfield Health global president Amar Urhekar and former Evoke Kyne chief executive David Kyne, both taking on global president roles.

Agency Evoke's logo

Evoke has integrated former Ashfield Health agencies into a single global brand / Courtesy of Evoke

The now-merged agencies have an existing relationship: private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (CD&R) acquired Evoke’s parent company Hunstworth in 2020, then Ashfield Health’s parent company UDG Healthcare in 2021. The integration brings together 12 creative and PR agencies from those two sides.

All change

If you need evidence of how quickly things change in healthcare marketing, take just one of those 12 agencies: Evoke Mind+Matter. That agency was only incepted in January 2021 when three other former Ashfield agencies merged (Cambridge BioMarketing, Pegasus and Ashfield Digital Creative).

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We sat down with Evoke Mind+Matter’s global president Ben Beckley alongside Urhekar (Evoke’s global president).

Evoke’s new strapline, ‘health more human,’ means a keen focus, says Urhekar, on a single question: “Once you evolve from being a person to a patient, what does that do to you as a human being?”

“We want to be the organization that gives that human experience; the right level of empathy, the right touch points; the right level of behavioral change; the right level of engagement to make the patient experience as good as it can be.”

In essence, that means designing healthcare communications to deal pragmatically with the modern healthcare environment in all its complexity, which, says Urhekar, can be “bizarrely disconnected in so many ways that the patients don’t get that human experience.”

With growth, Evoke increasingly becomes a potential driver of genuine change for these patients; Urhekar and Beckley both say that addressing healthcare equity will be a growing priority. Another will be to serve pharma companies on a global scale as those companies consolidate their own offerings and agency rosters.

Despite their size, Urhekar says, it may still be difficult to compete with some of the larger holding companies at the enterprise level – but “our best play to win and be a better partner for our clients is to give a consolidation solution at the therapeutic area level.”

The future of health marketing

Health marketing has long been one of the industry’s most closed-off corners, with an expectation of specialized expertise and unique challenges that has often kept talent and knowledge walled off from the wider industry.

But with the pandemic and recent economic uncertainty aiding healthcare’s reputation as almost recession-proof (“let’s knock on wood and hope it stays that way,” says Beckley), advertising’s big players and startups alike are increasingly getting in on the game. “I see that as a welcome change,” says Urhekar. “I’m really happy that the whole world is now realizing how important healthcare marketing communications is. If non-healthcare agencies can come into the industry, it will add to the pool of talent. If you get them excited and interested in becoming healthcare communication specialists, it will eventually benefit us as the blue blood healthcare marketing communications agencies.”

Equally, though, the pandemic has wrought another change: an increase in health and science literacy, enabling health marketers to focus on messaging that is “scientific, and science storytelling-oriented,” says Urhekar. “That’s where the non-healthcare agencies will find it difficult to dabble into.”

Fauci syndrome

Pharmaceutical companies haven’t always enjoyed widespread popular love. But here’s another change: during the pandemic, not only healthcare workers but public health officials and even drug developers became heroes of a sort. “When you speak to youngsters now, their definition of superheroes and people they want to be has changed,” says Urhekar. “Suddenly, you now have a five-foot-five-inch, frail, bespectacled guy as the person who actually goes and saves the world”: the US president’s chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci.

That has led to an influx of talent: not just doctors and nurses, but media and comms people keen to deploy their skills in the world of health. Evoke is keen to make the most of this trend, opening up the health side of the industry to its wider capabilities. “When we find consumer, mainstream, creative people, the level of our creativity is absolutely different,” says Beckley. The same change is happening client-side (at pharmaceutical companies), they say.

“Previously, the industry was ‘closed’: the conversations were contained,” says Urhekar. “You need to have the science background, you need to have a degree, you need to be a medical geek who can read all kinds of abstracts. But the advent of technology, and the change of perception of the pharmaceutical industry post-Covid, has opened the industry for people to come in. Good. It needs it.”

And what of the next couple of years? “My ambition is that we don’t lose the speed,” says Beckley. “We’ve made so much progress in two years, moving healthcare faster than it’s ever moved in history. Can we move faster? How can we be a part of that? The connectivity between patients and healthcare providers is more authentic now ... patients are becoming more educated, more aware. That authenticity and communications and connection – I hope that continues to improve.”

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