Pharma Marketing in a Hybrid World

by Peter Buell Hirsch

Watch the full session of "Conversations in Health: Pharma Marketing in a Hybrid World" above.

Recognizing that they have lagged behind companies in other industries in deploying digital channels in engaging with customers, companies in the pharmaceutical industry have made a concerted effort over the past three year to remedy this gap. For its Conversation in Health series, Ogilvy brought together four marketing leaders to discuss how these efforts are progressing. 

Our guests included Jay Appel, Executive Director and Worldwide Digital Engagement and Channel Planning at BMC; Sierra Towers, Global Head of Omnichannel Excellence with Boehringer Ingelheim; Florent Eduard, SVP, Global Head of Commercial Excellence from Grunenthal Group and Michelle Kelly, Merck’s VP, Global Head, Digital Marketing and Commercial Excellence.

The Covid Effect

As in so many other fields, the SARS CoV-2 pandemic brought an abrupt halt to in-person business engagements, nowhere more radically than for the thousands of pharmaceutical sales reps who found themselves suddenly sitting at home, trying to figure out how to engage with healthcare practitioners when they couldn’t leave the house. 

For the panelists, whose raison d’etre is moving their companies beyond traditional salesforce outreach into a range of digital engagement strategies, the pandemic was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they had never been the subject of so much attention from business leaders looking for new ways to make their numbers. On the other, it underscored how much still needed to be done to imbue their organizations with omnichannel excellence in a systematic and scalable manner. 

As Jay explains it, April 2020 unleashed a torrent of “rogue” efforts to go digital on the part of sales teams, clamoring to use vendors “out of nowhere” in an effort overcome the limitations of selling from home for the first time.  Sierra added that in this first flush of the lockdown agencies took the opportunity to try to sell “every possible crazy idea” that they thought would be cool.  She says she pushed back, suggesting that they help articulate the challenge in a measurable way rather than offering unproven “sexy solutions.”

From Selling to Serving

At the core, the crisis underscored how much progress still needs to be made in omnichannel excellence which still stands, to some degree at odds with the traditional annual brand planning process. In Sierra’s words: “we need to stop brand planning and start customer planning.” For Florent, this insight goes to the heart of the issue, which is that true commercial excellence can only thrive when planning by brands and therapeutic categories is replaced by thinking about customer groups, asking what customers want and need and how they want to receive it. 

What Florent calls this “cultural revolution” is for Michelle a matter of replacing “selling” to a customer with “serving” the customer.  She sees this as a fundamental change that requires pharma marketers to ask themselves, not what channels they should be using but how their value proposition has changed and what this means for strategic decision-making.  Only after clarifying these questions, she says, should there be a discussion of content and engagement plans to support the mission.

In order for this to happen, however, said Jay, the silos between the salesforce, the marketing function and meetings and events teams, among others, need to be broken down. Only when this happens is it truly possible to flip the conversation from spending 80% of the time talking about making stuff (content) and 20% about what kind of content to make and why, instead of simply competing for the same dollars and resources. 

And to do that, the entire panel agreed, there needs to be a much stronger focus on creating shared metrics and KPIs. Sierra pointed out this also meant a shift from quarterly reporting on results to real time monitoring in order to understand what customers are doing and feeding this data back to the teams in order to enable a more rapid response.  Michelle summed up three critical aspects needed to start to get traction in the new environment: firstly to be clear on who the customer is; secondly to build truly collaborative teams working in agile ways and finally being data driven in order to pivot resources more quickly.

Embracing the Customer-Focused Reality

In the long run, the panel agreed, there needs to be a true culture shift in which people up and down the organization accept that there is no going back to a traditional sales call-driven model. Brand leadership, in particular, whose career paths often predate the digital revolution, need to embrace the new customer-focused reality and ensure that their teams acquire the expertise to function in an omnichannel environment. The challenge, says Jay, is that too many pharma sales and marketing professionals still develop in their careers without exposure to the new channels.

The panelists described a number of steps they have taken to mitigate this effect. Michelle has created alumni programs to celebrate professionals who have learned how to apply new thinking.  Sierra said that, in additional to traditional management rotation programs, her company has experimented with so-called “extended business trips (EBTs), in which participants are responsible for special projects and become omnichannel champions. Both Michelle and Sierra have begun to experiment with “job swaps” which have shown promise but conceded that these were in their infancy.

Florent acknowledged that because the Grunenthal Group was much smaller than BMC, BI or Merck, it was sometimes possible to go faster especially by staying as simple as possible from a technically perspective. His comment prompted the panel to reflect on the challenge of scaling commercial excellence globally, encouraging smaller markets to experiment while finding the  right balance between centralization and de-centralization. Sierra commented that she has become very careful in her use of language in describing local divergences from new global practices she is trying to propagate. She has eliminated the word [local] “exception” from her lexicon on the grounds that it establishes a negative framework that promotes deviation from desired standards. 

Honing on the Individual

Michelle likes to use the word “harmonization,” evoking the metaphor of a “school of fish” to signify the combination of global governance and the power of distributed networks of expertise that allow for “close to customer” decision-making.  But she also pointed out that it can be hard to share learnings and best practices globally in an effective way.  Sharing use cases, she said, was not, by itself, effective in initiating behavior change. She says that she has recognized that business organizations are, at bottom, social organizations and social networks and that the only way to create behavior change is to acknowledge the role of individual interaction in producing true co-creation and to facilitate that process.

As to what the next twelve months hold, the panelists were unanimous: their organizations must become obsessive about individual customer level data and what it says about their needs and wants. As Sierra put it: “if [in the future], we’re still telling our customers what they want, we’re in trouble. There are too many people waiting for things to go back to where they were. We need to shift that mindset.”


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Peter Buell Hirsch is an Adjunct Professor based at Department of Communication Studies, Baruch College, New York, New York, USA and Global Consulting Partner for Reputation & Risk Lead at Ogilvy Consulting.