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Stars of the show

Even when we can't bear to watch, heroes can emerge from organised assemblies

Even when we can't bear to watch, heroes can emerge from organised assemblies

I don't like pharma industry conferences.More often than not, these meetings are self-congratulatory, back-slapping, circle the wagons, clap-trap.

They angst about 'partnership', but mean dumping more stuff on the NHS. They talk about 'mutually beneficial access', but mean cranking up call-rates. They bang on about change, but mean more of the same. I avoid them if I can.

They are usually shoddily organised by companies whose names are acronyms, or have a numb3r woven into them, sound foreign, or are deliberately misspelled in an all lower-case type face. On the day of the meeting, they usually send someone called John, who spells it Jon, and who invariably will be assisted by a Kylie.

Kylie will be a plump, morose specimen who will spend the day moping in the corner, texting some wretch of a boyfriend who deserves her.

John (or Jon) will be in the bar talking, mindlessly, about football, getting 'bladdered' at the weekend and how he would run the company if only he had half a chance, and half a brain.

The audience will be full of suits, hair gel and mobile phones that no one has the courtesy to switch off. Or, latterly, Blackberry or blueberry, or strawberry, or some other bit of electronic kit that they sit and fiddle with, answering emails and showing an unhealthy disdain for the speakers.

These are grim occasions aimed at self-reassurance and which pay lip service to what is happening in the real world. Yet, for the audience, it is better than hammering up and down the motorway and ritual abuse from practice managers. I vowed never to speak at another one.

But then I did. Speak at one. Just recently. Why? Well, it was organised for Innovex (who do understand about change, transformation and revolution) and the ABPI!

One mention of the ABPI and I'm like a moth to a flame! I couldn't resist it. However, what really did it for me was the line up of speakers: Sir John Banham, Barbara Cassani and Aidan Halligan; these people know stuff. They can talk, and might just engage the fruit cakes with their Blackberrys long enough to turn the bloody things off for an hour or so. Who the hell can pull a line up like that?

An inspiration
Well, I don't do advertising, I don't endorse products and I don't recommend anyone. But, for the record, it was the Medicom Group. And guess what? The people from the company who turned up at the conference had names like Nicola and Martin and Greg.

They were encouragingly normal, and the speakers were terrific. Banham, who has chaired nearly everything worth running, told us that the NHS was a train wreck.

He was wrong of course, but he has such dignity, style, ?lan and a fund of anecdotes that he is not to be missed.

Barbara, if I might be so bold as to call Ms Cassani by her first name, was engaging, energetic, funny, serious, commanding, insightful, intuitive, shorter than I thought and right about everything. I was seduced by Barbara. I have her picture on the fridge door. The Olympic organising committee for 2012 has lost a true business Olympian.

Aidan Halligan, the NHS' director of clinical governance, was moving, poetic and witty. He actually made me think. Truth to tell, he moved me to tears. If you know he is speaking somewhere, clear your diary, take annual leave and buy your own ticket. He is mesmerising.

There was also a speaker you may not have come across. He is Stewart Adkins from Marketing Performance. If you are on your deathbed, get up and listen to this man. If you have to, crawl to where he is speaking next. Drop what you are doing. Whatever it is, by comparison, Adkins is more important. Cancel your wedding, be absent for the arrival of your firstborn, choose to die another day. Do not miss this man. Adkins is a must-listen-to, jaw-dropping purveyor of the truth.

He has data that is a mirror for the industry, his analysis is as sharp as a surgeon's knife. He will unsettle you, make you think twice, three times and think again. He knows what the truth is. Once you have heard him speak, you will never sleep again.

Industry speakers massage, polish and buff up the truth to make us all feel better, that there is a career worth working for and it will be all right one day. It won't. Listen to Adkins, it is the only way you will be able to prepare for what is coming.

Me? What did I talk about? I talked about change, the mechanics of change and why change is so uncomfortable. I talked about companies that thought they were impervious to change and what has happened to them. I talked about the four ages of companies as they move from their origins in chaos through to dysfunctional maturity, and what happens in the fifth segment, where tough choices have to be made.

All of the speakers emphasised the importance of engaging with the customer. I spoke of the man who ordered a meal in a restaurant and promptly left. Another man came in and ate the meal - and then departed. A third man arrived and paid the bill. Who was the customer?

Cassani knew who her customer was and Halligan certainly knows. Who is pharma's customer? Doctor, Department of Health or patient?

By all accounts, this conference was a raving success. The evaluations were to die for; but I wonder. I wonder if the audience really, secretly, agreed with Sir John that the NHS was a train wreck. I wonder if they had the wriggle room to be as innovative and as iconoclastic as the Goddess Cassani?

Could they really see their customer, through the eyes of one of the service's greatest humanitarians, Aidan Halligan? Were they moved to tears of compassion or frustration? Oh, and after hearing Adkins, did they manage to sleep that night?

The author
Roy Lilley is a (sometimes controversial) healthcare author and broadcaster

2nd September 2008

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