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Perfect balance

Trust is created when staff are driven by a common purpose and there is equilibrium in an environment based on performance, learning and enjoyment
A woman in the midst of some yogaLife in international pharmaceutical marketing can often be intensely pressured, meting out demands for swift solutions to protracted problems and requests for multiple tasks to be dealt with simultaneously. Perhaps it is a truism that running a successful marketing operation is becoming an increasingly wide-ranging challenge requiring an unusually astute acumen, or maybe that is just a basic axiom for any business seeking to gain competitive advantage in a frenetic - and yet also more risk-averse - commercial world. In this state, are marketers being pushed too far, expected to deliver on broader goals to the unintentional detriment of their core work?
 
Today's environment is not the most comfortable it has ever been for pharmaceutical manufacturers. While firms attempt to align structures and targets with the global marketplace's changing dynamics - not least, faltering confidence in 'me-too' products and a relative shortage of blockbuster prospects =-attention paid to delivering a return to investors, sufficient to ensure future funds for further R&D, intensifies in tandem with rising concern over performance sustainability.
 
Change brings uncertainty which, it could be argued, increases the likelihood of shareholders, some investors and other stakeholders allowing their desire for the fruits of this business to swing more towards imminent financial gain and, consequently, away from riskier or longer-term business goals. Broader philanthropic endeavours might barely register.
 
In however far this is true, it places a particular burden on the CEO and board to deliver against keenly focused, relatively short-term pecuniary directives. One consequence of this unrelenting fiscal pressure can be the perception that a vacuum of information exists on company assets and prospects. Senior managers may rarely feel satisfied with their knowledge of their business and the minutiae of its prospects. Therefore, in satiating the drive to fill any gaps in knowledge, they may frequently call upon senior marketers to 'add value' above and beyond their fundamental objectives.
 
They must provide a run down of every project in pertinent detail, with ready answers to probing and forward-looking queries at their fingertips. They must take precious time out from their core work to educate the board, providing comprehensive briefings and positioning statements, in order that the top people feel comfortable and safe in all situations.
This process has both advantages and disadvantages for the company as whole. There is the familiar adage that 'knowledge is power', to which one might add that 'the unsullied expression of knowledge nurtures trust' outside a company, and deeper trust of stakeholders and the wider world is desired greatly by pharma. Trust is freedom to operate. However, the mechanism of 'extracting' information from marketing departments through frequent
interruptions can have the opposite effect inside the organisation, creating a sentiment of mistrust.

Senior (and vitally busy) marketers can be irked by a sense that board management seemingly and episodically fails to recognise the value of fluidity and continuity in marketing operations.

The role of informer

Perhaps this is a reaction to the disruption, as it is manifest that marketers appreciate the need for all at the top of the company to be up-to-date. This scenario prompts a conundrum: are marketers comfortable with the expanded description of how they add 'value' to a pharmaceutical business? That is, ultimately the figures supporting the bottom line are the clearest indicators of sales and marketing performance, yet how much time and effort (and to what value?) is invested by marketing departments in creating highly detailed and 'water-tight' briefing documents for the company board? To what extent are key marketing operations compromised as workers are compelled to find and (where it is even possible) present the answers to such questions as: will we definitely get a recommendation from health technology assessment bodies for this product? Do you understand the market well enough? How do you know the product is priced correctly across Europe? What is the competition doing? Why isn't the pack size larger? Are you doing it right? Indeed, how much 'added value' overall (ie, minus the detrimental effects on internal trust and impetus) does this inquisitorial stance deliver?

This whole area of internal trust is becoming increasingly visible. The stresses and strains on the pharma industry are fairly intense now and such 'interrogation' by managers zealously keen not to be blind-sided by an analyst's question comes across for those in the working ranks as constant double-checking of what's being done - it can be question, question, question, reveals a senior VP in global business strategy at a top European pharma company, whose career spans strategic marketing roles in various therapy areas and companies globally, and who has seen this trend emerge across the industry.

It's understandable that management should seek to be thoroughly informed. When you read the notes by Lehmen Brothers and other analysts, they are very savvy and they understand the differential advantages between products; if senior management don't understand everything the analysts purport to know, they'll get mauled when it comes to a shareholder meeting. However, it takes an enormous amount of resource and can cause notable disruption when senior marketing people are frequently pulled off key projects in order to provide assurance, in the form of highly detailed presentations and information 'packages'. The pressure on the board to know absolutely 'everything' at all times can lead to a continuous interrogation of people at the branding end.

The key shift in this process is linked to a consequence of the pressure on boards to assuage shareholders, investors and analysts during a period of notable flux. Back a little in history, top management were people able to act as those who added that extra five or ten per cent that would take you from good to great. Yet now, you could say that the consequence of external pressures is that management's attention becomes less supportive of the direction creating the vacuum that will draw the company forwards to fully exploit opportunities, distracted by the need to ensure that they are safe in their position.

After all, management has a finite life expectancy and as the industry as a whole is under attack at the moment, the only way for the leaders to protect themselves and their image is to always know everything, though they often don't admit that the means
to acquire this all-encompassing knowledge has a negative impact internally.

Room to manoeuvre

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote over 100 years ago that Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. Today, in pharmaceutical marketing, the converse is true. People in marketing want responsibility. They want freedom to create the best programmes possible - not without direction or consultation, but with sufficient room to be able to use their time most effectively, and, hence, add value to the company in the most effective way they can.

There is also an issue beyond that of valuable resources being funnelled into briefing the board, in that the very process can be risky for marketers and even introduce doubts both within themselves and on the part of the interviewers. You go in and usually you don't come out feeling better about yourself, comments a senior European strategist and former global marketer. Regardless of how these interviews are spoken about before the event, they will be under pressure, with many questions - some of which you as a marketer will be unable to answer. If this happens, there is the potential to cause damage to your own reputation because management will perceive you not to have all of the information.

He adds that in an era when CEOs and top management can be axed or forced to leave their position over company mistakes, the trend to 'interrogate' their staff could be driven by self-preservation or anxiety.

You see that they've got to look after themselves. Management has a finite life expectancy, particularly when investors and other main stakeholders get nervous about the process of change from one revenue model (blockbusters) to another nichebusters) when reputation as a whole is at a relative low. Add to this that it may take three to four days for you to prepare your presentation, which may then be reviewed by a more senior member of staff, perhaps a marketing director, for a further four or five days before the gruelling board interview, and the net result is one which can de-motivate and raise issues of internal trust.

Dr Brian Smith, visiting research fellow at Cranfield, one of Europe's leading business schools, and author of several books on organisational marketing strategy, comments however that: It's important to define what we mean by internal trust. At its most basic level, it means the belief that my interests and yours are aligned and not conflicting.

We all act in our own interest ultimately, and discrepancy between them is what leads to politics and deceit. Internal trust is important in making organisations work. It's known to improve organisational learning and to reduce costs associated with internal transactions. In the absence of internal trust, we tend to fall back on formal control systems. Not only are these expensive and clumsy, they only address the 'explicit' part of a job. In knowledge-based companies, much of our work is implicit and hard to control by anything other than internal trust.

If you want to create trust you have to give it and if you give people space to get on and work, by and large they will try hard to do it right, notes Eamon O'Brien, consultant and judge of the international Pharmaceutical Marketing Effectiveness Awards (www.pmlive.com/awards). If you are in a position to create or run pan-European marketing, I think you've got to be very conscious of creating a trustful environment. Trust is created when everyone is driven by a common purpose and the results needed to achieve this. It's easy to say you've got to have an environment based on performance, learning and enjoyment, but the key thing is actually people seeking to ensure the balance is there.

Remarkable as it may be, this issue has garnered such attention that a recruiter of international pharmaceutical marketing personnel told Pharmaceutical Marketing Europe that a common question now posed by candidates during interviews is: 'will I have the space to do the job, or should I expect to brief management constantly if I join this company?'

Find common ground

The seeming prioritising by board members of image security and assurance of statement above the fundamental operations of a pharma business (ie, being overly cautious about protecting the share price falling on the back of a PR mishap, rather than focusing more on the mechanics generating revenue to push the share price up) can be perceived by marketing staff as an irksome distraction. Yet, the negative consequences on internal attitudes arising from the understandable drive to have every piece of information to hand at all times are, of course, unintentional.

Are managers aware of the disruption to work schedules, as well as productive mind sets? I think they are, but they don't actually admit it, notes the European strategist. However, other work will fall away because this takes precedence over whatever else is going on.

As a marketer called to talk to management, you really don't want to miss that date; even if you have a major congress in process, you have to try to juggle it. The one thing you don't want to do is mess up your presentation to the board - the pressure can be such that the hierarchy of importance might move you to deliver this internal document rather than manage external business issues. Obviously, you try hard not to compromise anything, but there is only a finite number of hours in the day.

Yet, surely the position of each party is comprehensible and, all told, everyone is on the same team. So how can the situation be handled?

Handle with care

Communications expert, mediator and director of communications of the International Coach Federation, Chris Carling (www.chriscoach.com) admits that an atmosphere of suspicion can cause creativity to shrivel. The solution is to encourage inventiveness between staff and bosses in 'options for mutual gain'. The first step is to separate the people from the problem. In other words, don't take things personally. Focus on the problem that has to be resolved; be as clear and explicit as you can about that rather than wasting energy feeling paranoid or put upon.

Focus on interests, not positions. Look further than your bosses' seemingly unreasonable demands that, at first glance, may seem incompatible with your other commitments. Don't dig in and defend your position at all costs, instead look beneath the surface issues for what common interests you may share with your manager. The level of interests not positions is where you need to operate.

It is consequential from the myriad contemporary external pressures that pharma companies look more inwardly for verification; however, all within their walls should be cognisant of the risks of changing internal relationships as a result. As O'Brien concludes: I think people need to be reminded that 'we're all on the same team'.

The Author

Rob Skelding is a freelance healthcare and pharmaceutical journalist

5th November 2007

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