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PharMaHealth Group revs up LatAm expansion

PharMaCon President and Founder Ivelisse Casillas.

PharMaCon President and Founder Ivelisse Casillas.

Miami-based PharMaHealth Group, owner of local pharmaceutical marketing firms PharMaCon and Health Partners, is in the midst of an ambitious expansion to Latin America and the U.S. Hispanic market, as it seeks to grow along with its clients. As part of its strategy, the company plans to invest $150,000 to open a new office in Colombia this year.

In addition, it has promoted longtime company executive Maribel Cruz-Roldán to general manager of its Puerto Rico operations, which provide support to PharMaHealth.

“We started working on a regional level but we realized that the same needs are also present in Latin American countries,” said PharMaCon President and Founder Ivelisse Casillas. “In Colombia, for instance, we know there’s not an agency like us.”

Latin America is a powerful emerging market, according to Casillas. Her company has already tackled pharmaceutical company integration and product launches. She has created a pharmaceutical product launch program that will be applied throughout the region.

“With our team in Miami and Puerto Rico we have acquired clients in Germany, Panama, Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Peru,” said Casillas.

Each office handles its own portfolio of clients and specializes on certain services. The Puerto Rico operation provides digital and social media and public relations services for its clients and supports the Miami office. In turn, the latter tackles ad creative and internal communications projects.

In just five years, the PharMaHealth Group operation in Miami has swelled to 12 employees, including three employees who have relocated from Puerto Rico. During that period, PharMaCon has also grown consistently, albeit at a slower pace, from 14 to 20 employees.

Casillas said her next target for expansion is Chile, however, she would not rule out entering other markets first.

“This business has been guided by client needs from the start,” she explained, revealing that she has been approached for a pharmaceutical company integration project in Mexico.

“There are good things happening,” said Casillas. “When things get tough what comes next is good.”

Adversity as catalyst for growth
Prompted by her desire to move closer to Miami Children’s Hospital for her autistic son’s benefit, Casillas abruptly moved to Miami in 2011. For an entire year, she did not tell her clients. Once in Miami, she quickly realized that educational marketing dominated the industry, prompting her to set up PharMaHealth Group.

She cracked the market by targeting Miami pharmaceutical offices with responsibility over Latin American markets directed by Puerto Ricans.

Casillas’ move to Miami was not the first time that personal circumstances ended up working in her company’s favor. Prior to starting PharMaCon in 2000 and sister company Health Partners in 2006, Casillas was the marketing director for Glaxo when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) liberalized the pharmaceutical companies’ communications practices with patients. The FDA’s move sparked an avalanche of ads for prescription drugs.

Those days, advertising agencies had only a vague notion of what was permitted by the new regulations. Casillas found herself practically guiding the agencies’ work, which still resulted in a final product that was lacking in terms of strategy. The integration of such disparate audiences as patients, doctors and even pharmacists was key.

Casillas ended up overseeing a multitude of marketing campaigns when her son was diagnosed as autistic and her daughter was born. She saw an opportunity to provide a needed service to pharmaceutical firms and advertising agencies, while having the flexibility to better care for her son.

“The initial idea was to be a consultant,” said Casillas. “I started doing consulting work for some agencies but the implementation was poor and pharmaceutical company standards are very high.”

At first, her team was doing virtual work using freelancers from different locations. As time progressed, she added those services in-house. Merck was client for a long time. Satisfied with Casillas’ work, the company sent more projects her way, fueling PharMaCon’s growth.

In 2006, regulations changed again separating marketing of prescription drugs from the diseases to be treated.

“These firewalls were created where you have the product on one side and the disease in the other,” explained Casillas. “This is what is called in the industry ‘fair balance’.”

In response to those regulatory changes, Casillas established Health Partners as a vehicle to handle all the educational marketing related to health conditions and over the counter (OTC) drugs. PharMaCon, in turn, specializes in marketing prescription drugs.

What’s next for the industry
Casillas believes that in the future, pharmaceutical marketing will move completely toward the educational health conditions component, eclipsing prescription drug marketing. Currently, the commercial side drives a larger revenue portion as it includes public relations, explained Casillas.

“The commercial component will fall behind,” she predicted.

Despite the rise of digital and social media, pharmaceutical companies are limited on their use because of myriad legal risks arising from two-way communication between the patient and the company, Casillas said.

“The companies are still writing their own book on how to approach this. They are clear that they have to be there, it’s the how,” the executive said. “We have responded by strengthening our team through training. We have even begun to train our clients.”

Reporter Edison Reynaldo Misla may be contacted at: [email protected].

Author Details
Author Details
Author Edison Reynaldo Misla is a former publisher, editor and reporter, who currently works as a strategic business communications consultant.

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