Healthcare marketers say ad agencies aren’t very good listeners

by | Sep 13, 2017 | Marketing, Public Relations

Healthcare ad agencies need to sharpen their listening skills, according to a small but extensive new survey of marketing execs from HCB Health. Respondents in four industry sectors—pharmaceuticals, medical devices, biotechnology and medtech—correlated good listening with the ability to understand and meet their business needs but said only a small percentage of healthcare agencies listen really well. This failure can lead to misunderstandings that produce lower quality work, poor communication, and a tarnished agency image.

The survey, conducted by an outside research agency, asked 50 medical marketers how they define listening and how well they think their U.S. ad agencies listen in three categories—to them personally, to target customers, and overall as agencies of record. Respondents were also asked the top attributes they seek in agencies, what they wish their agencies would do more and less of, their main criticisms of agencies, and what qualities lead to long client-agency relationships.

“We have always believed, based on client feedback, that we are a great listening agency,” said Nancy Beesley, partner and chief strategy officer of HCB Health, in a news release. “But we noticed how surprisingly thankful clients seem when they feel they’re being heard and started wondering if good listening is being overlooked in our field. How well are agencies listening? And what does good listening actually mean in healthcare advertising? To find out, we decided to do what our clients would do—get some real data on the subject.”

What is “listening” and how well do agencies do it?

Respondents defined listening in two main ways. The first was how well agencies listen broadly, to inform their understanding of client goals and concerns and their knowledge of client brands, markets, customers, competitors and influencers. The second was how well agencies listen one-on-one, from taking direction and responding to feedback to respecting client expertise.

Asked how well their agencies listen overall, 66 percent of respondents gave their agencies positive ratings, although a mere four percent said they are “extremely satisfied” with how their agencies listen. Moreover, a full third of respondents gave their agencies negative or neutral ratings.

Asked how well their agencies listen to them specifically, 80 percent of respondents gave their agencies positive ratings, but again, only a small percentage said their agencies listen extremely well (12 percent), while one-fifth gave their agencies negative or neutral ratings.

Angry businessman yells in a bullhorn to a businessman in headphones

Respondents were most critical of all on the question of how well their agencies listen to target customers, with just two percent saying their agencies listen extremely well and a full third (34 percent) providing negative or neutral ratings.

“The findings were eye-opening,” said Beesley. “What looked at first glance like good news—a majority of positive ratings across all three measures of listening—was offset when you considered how few respondents gave their agencies top marks and how many gave them failing or neutral marks. ‘Slightly satisfied’ or ‘moderately satisfied’ isn’t good enough for most agencies. Clearly, healthcare agencies need to do a better job of listening.”

Why agencies should listen up

The HCB survey uncovered several ways poor listening can lead to client-agency problems, including:

  • Failure to meet expectations: Asked what they wish their agencies would do less of, more than half of all respondents cited listening-related misunderstandings, including off-target strategy, inferior work quality, cost issues, and undesirable account team behavior
  • Reduced value: Listing their main criticisms of agency relationships, more than a third of respondents said agencies diminish their value when they have weak and static knowledge of their client’s business, fail to proactively introduce fresh thinking, respond poorly to feedback, and put agency interests above client interests, particularly in terms of being too revenue-focused.

On a positive note, the HCB survey underscored the role of good listening in building strong and enduring client-agency partnerships. Not surprisingly, good communication and a collaborative attitude were seen as key ingredients for long and successful relationships, which, along with experience and creativity, were identified as main attributes marketers look for in selecting an agency.

“Agencies that listen well and fully understand their clients’ needs are seen as better business partners, both new and long-term,” said Beesley. “Agencies that don’t listen well fail to build and sustain the kind of partner relationships that respondents said they value.”

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter