Data and pharma: Maybe not sexy to ad creatives, but some people find them really, really attractive

13th December 2012

To any old-school ad creative, there’s not much to be said for data. It’s really boring, they’ll tell you, especially when you compare a day spent at your desk crunching figures to the allure of shooting a new car ad in South Africa.
They have a point – up to a point. At Green Square, we’re constantly looking at financials, drilling down and analysing, but even to M&A advisers like us – who love detail – once we have got the overview of the picture the figures provide it is hard to get really excited by the umpteenth balance sheet iteration!However, used properly, and to some of the industry’s most astute buyers – Sir Martin Sorrell for one – data is really rather sexy; something to definitely get excited about. As brands attempt to make their marketing messages more targeted, more relevant, in order to cut through the noise that fills our lives, data – or rather, the ability to interpret data and generate insights for creative and planners – becomes ever more important.

Which is why we’ve seen a lot of boutique data outfits snapped up by the big boys over the past few months. This week is no different, although the acquirer is nowhere near WPP-sized.

WANdisco (Wide Area Network Distributed Computing, apparently) is listed on the London Stock Exchange and has offices in both Silicon Valley and the Don Valley (i.e., Sheffield). It’s essentially a company that allows software developers to work on projects collaboratively and simultaneously, wherever they are in the world. It’s the kind of company that doesn’t look particularly exciting at first glance but which investors flock to – indeed, when WANdisco floated on the LSE six months ago, the IPO was massively oversubscribed. Although not a marketing services company in the strict sense, WANdisco and outfits like it will be very much part of the future.

It obviously has ambitions, because it has just acquired a small but important US data analytics company called AltoStor. AltoStor is a pioneer in what’s called “big data” – datasets so large and so complex that standard relational databases just can’t handle them. We’re talking about tens or hundreds of terabytes (millions of gigabytes) and upward. Examples here in the UK might include bank, credit card, NHS or DVLC databases or familiar brands such as Amazon, Tesco, Facebook, eBay and British Airways – and it’s not inconceivable that FMCG giants such as Proctor & Gamble, or automotive manufacturers like Toyota and Ford, are “big data players” as well.

AltoStor was a pioneer in the use of the Apache Hadoop big data platform, which is becoming a bit of an industry standard. So it’s easy to see why it was such an attractive acquisition for WANdisco, who can now offer clients some serious big data collaborative software tools. These could have far-reaching implications for the management of large CRM databases and the like, especially as brands start moving to the cloud (Amazon and Apple are two obvious examples). WANdisco said immediately after the acquisition that it hopes to have its first big data products out next year. It may be a couple of years before we start seeing the effect these tools have on digital marketing. But there will be an effect.

Still with digital, it’s interesting to note that one of the fastest-growing marcomms specialisms, healthcare, has been a little slow on the digital uptake – there are relatively few digital pharma agencies in the UK. This is slightly odd because tablets and smartphones have revolutionised the working practices of physicians and pharmacists – you’re just as (if not more) likely to see a doctor clutching an iPad as a clipboard these days.

So it was no surprise to see the Creston group paying a rumoured £3m for a majority 75% stake in the highly-rated digital healthcare agency DJM Digital Solutions. DJM will be incorporated into Creston’s Health division, alongside Red Door, Pan and Rock Medical Communications. The new parent has the option to buy out the remaining 25% from 2018.

Creston’s “new boy” employs 26 people at its Richmond offices and specialises in fields such as iPad e-detailing (a way for pharma sales forces to interact with physicians, cut costs and get their drugs prescribed, usually through an online portal like The great advantage with e-detailing is that it allows busy doctors to “talk” to pharma reps at a time that suits them); augmented reality; and standard website build and SEO.

What’s especially interesting about this acquisition – apart from the fact that there’s one less fish in the small digi-pharma pond of course – is that there’s the opportunity to apply DJM’s specialisms – e-detailing looks very promising – to consumer and B2B marketing (Creston owns the likes of TMW, Columbus and Nelson Bostock).

Imagine being able to talk to, or get info from, a virtual sales rep at your convenience and without the hassle of a hard sell – that’d be something a lot of consumers would probably be keen on – I certainly would be interested – and which might make for some very effective communications at some point in the not-too-distant future.