PM360 Q & A with Craig Sullivan, President, Pacific Communications

What will the successful agency business models of the future look like? They could very well look similar to the unique business model that Craig Sullivan, President of Pacific Communications, champions on the West Coast. With clients representing the upper echelon of the industry, his shop is a full-service print, video, and digital healthcare agency with a staff of 265 and a wholly owned subsidiary of Allergan.

With experience in both the client and agency sides of the industry, Craig helps drive the strategic innovation, brand stewardship, and customer-focused partnerships that define Pacific Communications. PM360 interviewed Craig to take a deeper dive into what makes this agency so unique, why and how it is successful—and what it takes to stay a step ahead in a crowded field.

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PM360: Pacific Communications is a healthcare agency with a unique business model. Can you talk about that and why it is successful?

Craig Sullivan: We’re a wholly owned subsidiary of Allergan, which is also our dominant client. But the misperception is we’re purely an in-house agency that only serves as an interface with other agencies. We work with external clients as well, and we are modeled and structured like every other full-service agency in the industry. Our success is built on the fact that we are performing as an exterior agency and competing for marketing spend just like every other agency. But because of our ownership, we actually have a shared incentive and a unique value proposition.

What makes that shared incentive unique?

We are essentially part of the same organization so we’re not incentivized to selling tactics, ideas, or strategies that benefit the agency more than the brand. Our clients appreciate that type of partnership in which our success is literally defined by their success.

What about on Allergan’s end? Do you still compete for their business?

We still have to pitch. It’s not an edict to use us. In fact, Allergan uses many other agencies as well. And that open market model is very healthy. It keeps us competitive. Plus, we want to make sure we’re working with people who want to work with us—not that are forced to. At the end of the day, it comes down to doing what agencies do best: Really understanding the brand, the market, and our clients, and then coming up with creative and insightful solutions to propel their brands.

Do you have a different relationship with clients due to your model?

We’re valued as a member of the team and are allowed in, so to speak, because of that shared objective. But we also have to pay that off with good thinking, strategy, and execution. Additionally, we bring an understanding of the kind of pressures they’re under. We know the importance of staying a step ahead of their needs and the needs of the brand. We cannot always wait for specific directions. Clients today are so overtaxed they need more than execution—they need someone to partner with them on both strategy and content.

Allergan adopted the moniker “growth pharma.” Can you tell us more about that?

It’s a way to help differentiate Allergan’s unique place in the industry. It has multiple characteristics including top-line growth, customer intimacy, category leadership, and open science. But it is those last two that put our agency in a position for a lifeblood of opportunities.

Category leadership is a focused approach in which brands are placed into a vertical such as eye care or GI. As an agency, we have deep experience in many of those verticals, which makes us appealing.

The other component is open science. This keeps Allergan growing with both new products coming from its own development program as well as through a combination of acquisitions or agreements. Plenty of products are on the horizon and because of our value to the organization, we’re in a good position to compete for those opportunities. While we are not guaranteed those spots, we certainly want to put ourselves in a position to help support the growth of those brands.

What challenges have you had to overcome as an agency?

Talent is critical to everyone, but since most agencies are typically housed on the East Coast we have to work especially hard to attract and retain top talent as a West Coast agency. It’s critical we pay extra attention to making sure people are both challenged and rewarded. With that said, I am surrounded by very talented people and we have teams that could stand up to the very best within the industry. However, we are not limited to the West Coast as we are exploring opportunities to expand out East.

Let’s talk about content and distribution. Content is still king.

Yes, but the real value for the brand comes with an agency that understands the strategy and the content. When brands try to specialize by using a digital agency or another agency with a particular tactical expertise, something is lost in translation. For instance, digital agencies are often tasked with creating content based on a strategy developed by another agency. Whereas, if you’re an agency that’s creating original content and then pushing that through various formats, then a thorough line is identifiable.

What about creating content that makes an authentic connection?

We all recognize that our world has moved away from impression-based marketing to connection-based marketing. We have to find ways to cut through the clutter. Additionally, HCPs are very savvy—they can read through non-authentic messaging. It is important to tap into the part of their mind where they find our brand. In other words, discovering what problem our brand solves for them so we are connecting with where their mind is versus where we think it is.

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