Make Your Marketing Budget Work Harder With a Virtual Agency

Emily Thornton Calvo, for HealthLeaders Media , March 18, 2009

In this economy, healthcare marketers are watching their budgets more closely than ever. Hospitals endure rising costs, pressure to increase access, and let's face it, they'd rather spend money on the latest CT scanner than media or creative talent. In response, marketers are finding that they can achieve great creative work and get more for their money by creating their own virtual agency.

Create your own agency
The virtual agency model differs from hiring freelancers or using a traditional ad agency in several ways. First, unlike an agency, you choose each team member. In addition, unlike freelancers, there's an ongoing, high level of collaboration. Resources may be freelancers, owners of small shops or even agency talent. Best of all, you pay a fraction of what a full-service agency would charge—and can still get great work.

Having worked at a healthcare ad agency and well aware of high agency fees, Mary Zokan turned to former colleagues for creative work when she became Director of Marketing at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora, IL. With a small internal staff, she also added a freelance copywriter, designer, and media buyer for marketing campaigns and collateral projects. Later, she added two more former colleagues for TV, videos, and Web work.

Like Zokan, Marty Beerman, vice president of marketing and community relations at Children's Hospital in Omaha, NE, has an internal staff to handle the everyday marketing functions, but relies on an outside team for branding programs, advertising campaigns, and other projects.

Hungry to shift the strategic message, Beerman shopped for an ad agency, but decided that his freelance copywriter, paired with a design group he'd worked with in the past, and several other pros, could best accomplish his goals. Together, they determine strategy and then the creative team collaborates just as an agency's team does. They even hold weekly meetings.

Curb costs, not quality
One of the biggest benefits to creating your virtual agency is cost savings. No retainer fees. No markups. There is no overhead. No fancy building. No layers of account people logging hours. In fact, Tom Comes, director of marketing and public relations at Borgess Health in Kalamazoo, MI, estimates he spends about 50%–60% less than he would for an agency—and the hospital has won their share of awards. Plus, the virtual agency makes it easier for marketers to ensure brand consistency.

Like some hospital marketing directors, Comes had agency experience when he landed his current position, so he knew the process. He created his virtual agency when a marketing survey showed he needed to reestablish the hospital's brand. Frustrated by the prospect of reeducating an agency to the hospital's tone and processes he began working with an outside strategist, a media planner, two art directors, a producer for TV and radio, and four writers.

"I've worked with multiple, full-service agencies," Beerman says, "but the virtual agency model enables me to cherry-pick the best talent for a fraction of the cost." In fact, Beerman estimates he's saving more than 50% for the same quality work that an agency would deliver.

"The creative talent and strategic skills I have with my virtual agency is on par with any agency specializing in healthcare on a national level," says Zokan. "My key players have years of experience working for a national healthcare agency and I constantly rely on their professionalism, creative talent and strategic insight. Our work has consistently yielded top awards at state and national competitions."

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