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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

'Make it Better '– the Gained Momentum from a Strong Campaign

A successful campaign doesn't simply say that a brand is well championed. It's an essential in getting increasingly effective drugs prescribed, and the next generation through the pipeline

The pharmaceutical marketing business can get a hard time because people don't understand why medical professionals need to be 'sold to'. Shouldn't we just trust our doctor to make balanced impartial decisions and prescribe the best available treatment for our condition? Surely good drugs sell themselves?

But we know that's not true. Not because doctors don't care – they care deeply – but because of simple human nature. Healthcare professionals do years of training and keep learning throughout their careers. But they are busy people. They are human. They make mistakes.

A General Medical Council review recently published found that GP prescribing errors were common. Doctors favour the familiar over the unknown. If anything they're more conservative than most: the virtues of the precautionary principle are drummed into them early, making them cautious and sceptical about trying new things.

That's a problem for progress. Pharmaceutical companies spend billions developing better products but if they don't get prescribed, the investment becomes unsustainable. And governments are simply not set up to replace it.

So we need effective, responsible advertising and marketing to ensure the best drugs are chosen and the best companies go on to succeed. This provides the cash to keep the discovery of new medicines going and the pharma business afloat. Let's remember that, R&D aside, the pharma industry is a hugely important UK business, worth £14.6bn in exports in 2007. 

An example of advertising-driven innovation involved the rather run-of-the-mill paracetamol. Given intravenously (IV), paracetamol is surprisingly effective (as potent as intramuscular morphine, in fact) yet retains the familiar benign safety profile everyone cherishes. That makes it an ideal pain reliever for day-case surgery. By avoiding morphine's woozy after effects, patients recover faster. So they go home happier and earlier, saving the health service money in the process.

But paracetamol doesn't readily dissolve (those fizzy hangover remedies are actually just a suspension) and once the pharma company had developed a clever way to make paracetamol soluble it went unused by all but a handful of anaesthetists. It seemed unreasonably expensive – 10 times the cost of ordinary tablets – and easy to dismiss. Yet here was a chance to make medicine better.

The company didn't have the resources for a field force so started with a mailing and advertising campaign. As usage grew, so did the promotional budget. Now, happily, IV paracetamol is standard of care. Such progress would never have happened without pharma advertising.

But advertising needs to be an efficient use of resource, not a vanity project for a client, or an agency for that matter. A doctor can quickly feel bombarded with mediocre hands-in-the-air-running-down-a-beach visuals overlaid with shallow, grab-the-obvious-insight platitudes about confidence, liberation and control. It must be like listening to Dido all day long.

To regain the respect of its audience, responsible pharma advertisers should treat their customers with intelligence and make an effort to engage them. They will find decisions being influenced in their favour, accelerating the replacement of obsolete medicines.

Article by
Louisa Pau and Christian Dawson

founder and strategy director at woolley pau gyro can be reached at and respectively

16th May 2012


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