Words by Isabel O’Brien
Blockchain holds great potential for the pharmaceutical industry, particularly as a platform for programmatic advertising, which would allow marketers to seamlessly and safely target ads to healthcare professionals.
“The world is changing at a massively rapid pace”, says Ryan Connolly, Vice President, Creative, Anthill Agency at the eyeforpharma Marketing and Customer Innovation Europe event. “The main thing changing this pace is technology… the different volatilities, uncertainties, complexities, and ambiguities.”
Connolly is right to flag the challenges of technology. While it does deliver solutions and efficiency to the modern world, it also thrusts a sandstorm of abstract ideas, processes, and industry-specific buzzwords at us for comprehension.
A notorious zeitgeist term is blockchain. You may have heard of it in relation to the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which enables users to store their money in a virtual wallet and perform transactions between each other outside the banking system. However, blockchain is much more far reaching.
“Bitcoin is not blockchain… there is confusion between the two”, says Richard Springham, Deputy Managing Director, Four Health Media at Four Communications. “Blockchain is the platform on which Bitcoin sits, a bit like how the internet is the platform on which email sits, so they’re very separate.”
Future-proofing is how big business cures its own anxieties over change
The benefits of the blockchain platform include transparency: all users in the network can see the data; immutability: no one in the network can alter that data; and security: the data is stored consecutively in different locations, so it cannot be hacked unless all locations are hacked at once. The system generates trust between all members of the chain.
“Everything we do in business and trade is about trust”, comments Springham. “And when we were only trading with friends and family many years ago, there was trust, but as the world population grew, trust deteriorated.”
For business and trade to continue and grow, a new system of middlemen was developed. Think of the Monopoly man – gesticulating in his top hat and tuxedo. These institutions facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers; imagine buying a house without a bank or estate agent, and while they create a secure channel for trade, there is also opportunity for exploitation – how can we be sure they are not abusing our trust?
This was an issue for Four Health when their client Johnson & Johnson expressed an interest in utilising programmatic advertising – a marketing system through which advertisers buy ad space for their products on publishers’ websites – as a new innovative route to advertise to HCPs.
“Programmatic advertising is a bit like eBay; you have the product you want to buy… and you have a price you have set to buy that item at”, explains Springham. “The product is a human being’s interests and the price is the price that you’re willing to pay to show that advert to that person.”
The programmatic process takes place automatically, so advertisers and publishers are trading constantly, and consumers are receiving adverts based on their interests. According to Springham, the UK will spend £6 billion on programmatic advertising this year: 87% of the total digital display ad spend. In the USA, this figure could be as high as $59 billion. However, the ecosystem in which this takes place is convoluted and opaque; rather than advertisers trading directly with publishers, there are middlemen processing these transactions.
“There were issues”, admits Springham. “Can we trust that all the middlemen were providing the services they needed to provide, at a cost that was relevant and fair? We had no vision – no view of that.”
Blockchain enables transparency and total data security, making it the perfect platform to implement a pharmaceutical programmatic advertising campaign, in which better visibility and minimum risk is needed. Four Health, Johnson & Johnson, and their chosen blockchain partner teamed up to turn on the light and look inside the infrastructure.
“Every single part of the chosen ecosystem had to implement a bit of code that was going to open their doors in order to share information across that network”, explains Springham. “Some were not happy.”
The alliance could now access data about the intermediaries. “One middleman was consistently three times more expensive and half as effective as their peers”, reveals Springham. Not only did blockchain grant insight into the inner workings of the ecosystem, but it also released information that could guide Four Health to make smart business choices on behalf of their client.
“The outcome was that if we tweaked one thing in scenario one… we saw a 25% performance improvement. If we did two things in scenario two it was a 36% through to 50% performance uplift”, discloses Springham, demonstrating the commercial value blockchain can deliver when used in this context.
“Future-proofing is how big business cures its own anxieties over change”, concludes Connolly. “And within pharma, particularly in my experience, we need to flip that on its head and try and look at different strategies that relinquish some of the controls.”
The exciting reality of blockchain is that, while it is an alien and complex technology, it does not require relinquishing too much control. Blockchain is new, but not laden with risk, and for the industry, a police escort into the seamless trading that programmatic advertising has to offer.