Molly E. Hoke, PhD, ISMPP CMPP™

This article summarizes a robust discussion held on May 1, 2018, during a roundtable session entitled “Industry–Agency Relationship — Working as a True Team” at the 14th Annual Meeting of the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP). The roundtable was moderated by Jason Gardner, PhD, CMPP (Managing Scientific Director, CMC) and Pia Graham (Associate Director, Publication Management, Merck). Jason has experience in both industry and agency environments, having spent the first 12 years of his career with GSK (6 years) and Merck Serono (6 years). Pia has been working in Publications at Merck for the last 9 years of her 29-year career.

Best Practices for a Successful Relationship

The partnership between the pharmaceutical industry and one or more medical communication agencies is an important relationship and a common one in the development and execution of publication plans. For the industry and agency professionals involved in these partnerships, there is a benefit to sharing best practices in forming these key working relationships. Participants of the ISMPP 14th Annual Meeting roundtable on the Industry–Agency Relationship, representing an equal distribution from industry and agencies, discussed various best practices and helpful tips during their lively discussion.

Establish a Strong Foundation and Invest in the Relationship to Build Trust

In a broad start to the discussion, participants of the Annual Meeting roundtable were asked, “What makes a good relationship?” Responses included that those from industry and agencies act as true partners and help set a positive tone for the relationship with proactive, clear communication and by being a source of solutions for issues (previous or ongoing) from key learnings gained with the current company or client or experiences with other companies or clients.

The Industry–Agency relationship is elevated when the agency is viewed as more of a true partner by adding value and sharing in the goals. Moreover, industry and agency professionals with significant breadth and depth of experience have the advantage of seeing many possible permutations of how things can be done or issues that arise, so they can think through a situation and may know of a certain product or service offering that works better for certain types of medical communications deliverables.

The structure on the industry side can impact both parties, so the industry partner should proactively share as much relevant information as possible with the agency partner, while respecting the company’s confidentiality and compliance policies. An example raised by participants was that some pharma/biotech companies may have internal medical writers that produce publications. For a new vendor, this is important to determine early on to effectively manage the relationships.

In addition, it is helpful to know who the key team members are; the industry partner should facilitate introductions, when possible, so those on the agency side know who they are interacting with. Industry partners should also ensure agency partners are invited to be part of publication teams when it is reasonable and makes sense strategically to include them.

How to Best Work Together and Tools That Can Assist

The roundtable group raised that neither side should walk into the relationship with assumptions. It can be helpful to establish a lexicon or common language, so all are clear on what certain key terms mean and to form from the outset (as well as periodically evaluate) working norms or a “Team Charter” to clarify “how we do things.” The Team Charter should capture essentials, such as how to interact, meet, and behave to most effectively work with each other and the desired mechanisms by which that will occur. Further, an agency can develop a questionnaire for the client to complete that would clarify how the client desires to partner with the agency.

Industry and agency partners may find it helpful to have face-to-face time together, perhaps via a regularly scheduled in-person meeting. The partners should also use a mix of communication styles in-between the live meetings, such as web-based meetings, phone calls, emails, etc.

If the industry partner is working with other companies (ie, a co-promote) or other agencies on the specific disease space and/or brand, this information should be shared with the agency partner. There is a benefit for the industry partner to make introductions and help guide how all the parties can most effectively work together, such as having recurring joint status calls to review projects. The agency partner can also raise with the industry partner how they should work with other agencies by asking questions, such as “How do you prefer to work with the other agencies?” The agency partner can even offer to set up a meeting to kick off the relationship with the other agency partner(s).

Lastly, if an industry partner undergoes a team transition and the agency is working with a new contact, it can be helpful for the agency to schedule an onboarding or orientation to facilitate building this new relationship and utilize it as an opportunity to get to know each other better and discuss how they wish to work together.

Fill in the Blanks: Educating on the “Why” in the Process is Important

Roundtable participants noted the importance of establishing timelines to manage expectations among the industry and agency partners surrounding deliverables and to keep projects on track, but to also allow a certain level of flexibility within those timelines (ie, plan for the worst, but hope for the best), if possible. For instance, author comments may come back late, and there needs to be a mechanism to still make the agreed-upon congress abstract submission deadline.

It is also important for the agency to educate the client, if needed, on the steps involved in developing a publication and how much time each step typically takes, and to communicate where there are opportunities to expedite the process. A roundtable participant mentioned an agency could produce an infographic that details how agency processes work to educate a client in understanding processes.

The Importance of Planning Ahead for Both Industry and Agency Partners

When contemplating an Industry-Agency relationship, industry partners should plan as far ahead as possible so resources within an agency can be dedicated to ensuring the work can be done. It can take time for an agency to staff up, form, and train the best core team possible. Whether a team can be dedicated depends on the situation and size of the account. Industry partners should be aware that agencies can usually make internal changes to their teams to accommodate client needs, so keeping the lines of communication open is encouraged.

Industry partners should recognize that for those on the agency side, sometimes situations occur where “everything is a rush for every single client.” So, it can be helpful for agency partners to know when there is flexibility in timelines and to understand “how does this fit into the priorities?” It can also be helpful for agency partners to know the rationale of why a client is rushing a project, such as “pressure from above” or generally a stressful or busy period.

Constructive, Candid Feedback is a Two-Way Street

The need for 360 feedback and dialogue among industry and agency partners was felt to be a key requirement for success. While many assume this is just client feedback to the agency, possibly in the form of an Annual Review, that approach only flows from the client side. The roundtable group discussed that the process should be more of a “give and take,” with the agency also being able and comfortable to share what the industry partner could do to enhance the partnership. Those on the industry side are encouraged to ask their agency partner, “How am I doing?”

If the industry partner does not initiate providing feedback, the agency should set up a forum for this dialogue. A debrief could be facilitated by circulating a list of feedback questions internally first and having a joint discussion about the results. Basically, it is important for both parties to understand what is working well and what isn’t, and what can be done to improve the partnership.

Participants on the agency side shared that raising the idea of providing feedback to the client can be awkward, and there may be some concern involved in offering feedback because there is a desire to avoid damaging the relationship. Also, the industry partner may not have the awareness to ask for feedback, which can lead to an uncomfortable interaction. Even so, the roundtable felt that feedback is part of good project management and, as the Industry–Agency relationship depends on it, the agency partner should offer the client feedback. Ultimately, the feedback would strengthen the relationship in the longer term.

When asking for feedback during a time-sensitive or pressure-sensitive situation or project, it is important to stay solution-focused and work on problem-solving. What are things each side could do together, as well as individually, to improve the situation? Brainstorming solutions can be a terrific tool, invoking such questions as “What else could we do?” which can also help build trust.

Bringing It All Together: Delivering on the Promise as a True Team

There was wide agreement that the Industry–Agency relationship requires an investment of time and effort from all parties to foster a positive and productive relationship, but that it is well worth it. The roundtable discussions summarized criteria for a successful Industry–Agency relationship, which are captured in the list below.

Criteria for a Successful Industry–Agency Relationship

  • Positive tone and attitude towards partnership (ie, not “master and servant”)
  • Clear and open communication
  • Be solution-focused
  • Share information, changes, goals, pressures, limitations
  • Clear processes, roles, and responsibilities
  • Manage expectations
  • Good mechanisms to interact: face-to-face, Skype, phone, email
  • Foster trust: 360 feedback, debriefs


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