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Taking Control

Newly appointed brand managers may think they're steering a campaign to new heights, but how many are flying on autopilot?

Make no bones about it: become a brand manager and you step into the spotlight with a remit to deliver.

It's tough and pressurised but seen as an ideal job. Your company has placed its trust in you, you're in the driving seat and you've been given the opportunity to make your mark on a campaign and achieve success. There will be many challenges and pressures that will most likely beset you when you least expect it, and at times you will feel like tearing the hair out of your head.

Yet, ultimately, the rewards will be worth it and you'll reap a deep sense of satisfaction out of formulating the business plan, setting ambitious targets and executing the campaign with pinpoint precision. Not least, the fruits of your labour will be highly visible to your peers and bosses, and you will be judged on their merits.

Pharmaceutical brand managers could be forgiven for thinking that they have it tougher than their FMCG counterparts. The huge level of capital investment in the pharmaceutical sector means that once a product has gained approval, the pressure is on to maximise that asset as quickly as possible.

For many battle-hardened reps who have carried the bag in the field for a few years, the brand manager position is perceived as a watershed. In essence, it's the launch pad to a career in the brave new world of marketing. It is the job that they aspire to; after all, it is the brand manager who gives them the tools to do their day-to-day job (such as the detail aid and communications messages) so it is only natural that they will want to try their hand at orchestrating their own brand campaign one day.


Tricks of the trade
There are several prerequisites to being a success in the job: planning and analysis skills are crucial, as is the ability to not only communicate your ideas effectively but also to gain buy-in from both internal and external stakeholders.

Karen Fraser, vice-president, product marketing at Quintiles, believes that the best brand managers are the ones who can pick up the reins, define the brand, the market environment, the competition and the overall strategy, and then decide on the most effective activities to achieve those critical success factors.

The ability to think creatively is important, but I would say that the best brand managers will harness the experience and the ideas of the people around them, she says. They won't think they possess all the answers themselves and will make a big effort to get input, partly because they value that input and partly because they know that's the best way to get their plans adopted.

Duncan Morris, CEO at contract sales organisation AmDel, agrees that one of the most important skills that a brand manager needs is the capacity to influence colleagues at all levels within an organisation: If you're a national sales manager, you can turn around to a team of 60 people and tell them in no uncertain terms what you want them to do. You can't do that as a brand manager.

There are senior marketing people in the industry who look back on their stint as a brand manager with no shortage of nostalgia. Fraser hails her time as brand manager for a migraine treatment, Imigran, as one of my favourite ever jobs, describing it as the perfect opportunity to make a difference without getting bogged down with the management and politics that may come as you move up an organisation.

It's the holistic nature of the role that is so appealing, the fact that you're driving the campaign from the beginning to implementation, she adds.


Stepping stone
Yet, despite the attractions of the position, people do not stay in brand management for very long, often viewing it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Many are already moving on to a fresh challenge within two to three years. If the job is so exciting and appealing, why do brand managers seem to bolt out of the exit at the earliest opportunity?

One reason, according to Morris, is that it is an immensely pressurised role. He says while the satisfaction comes from the multi-factorial aspect of interfacing with advertising, med ed and PR, as well as senior management and the salesforces, before hitting the numbers, arguably it gets a little less satisfying each year.

When I was at Lundbeck, I told people I promoted to brand manager that I expected them to be there for a minimum of four years, he says. If you have a succession of brand managers, each one wants to try and make their own imprint on the product. Every time a campaign changes, it does get diluted and you inevitably lose consistency in the promotion of the drug.

A second reason why brand managers are in a state of constant flux is that the vast majority of them are ambitious achievers with a natural inclination to develop their career. In an industry where certain companies have been known to make wholesale staff changes across the board every two years, it is no surprise that they chop and change brand managers with such regularity.

It is simply not the done thing to stay in brand management, as there will always be that pressure on people to move on and up to the next professional level.

However, Fraser says there is a case for changing the perception within the industry that a brand management position is merely a holding station wedged between sales and marketing for a bright young executive with their eye on a senior position.

Companies seriously need to look at how they can encourage people to spend more time in brand management, she states. They've already made it more attractive for people to remain in the salesforce if they enjoy the flexibility of being in the field. Some have developed schemes where you can become an executive rep, which recognises experience and longevity of service. Maybe something like that needs to be developed in marketing.

The idea of moulding the brand manager role into a more stable, specialist function is supported by Michael Clark, group marketing director at Archimedes, although he contends that for this to ever happen, the industry has to begin recruiting higher calibre candidates. His belief is that, in many companies, the brand management role has been 'dumbed down' to a project management-type role that is focused too fervently on short-term execution rather than long-term strategy.

Typically, UK brand managers are in the job for two years and then they move on, he says. And while they're in the job they're being judged on whether they can produce pens and detail aids in time and on budget approved by procurement. Lots of people are only interested in putting it on their CV. They don't have a passion to make their brand successful.

The sweeping tide of global mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceutical industry has created stock market-driven companies geared up for strong central implementation of marketing strategies and tactics, a trend that has inevitably impinged on the brand manager's freedom of movement. Many have become frustrated at often disastrous decisions by companies, based solely on stock market pressures, to cut individual product campaign resources.

Increasingly, firms are looking for a return on investment in the same year, a somewhat unreasonable demand in the pharmaceutical industry given that most products require three or four years before the sales volume satisfies the investment.

Central control
Clark's view is that an intensification of central control, either from the global or European office, is destroying the real essence of what it means to be a brand manager. He likens being a domestic brand manager under such control to the hapless business owner who, having secured a loan from the bank manager, still has to obtain permission to spend the money.

Brand managers spend most of their time reporting upwards - they're asked to go away and write a report on what NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) is doing. At the end of the day, that's a waste of time and demoralising for people at country level.

Fraser accepts that in some companies, the level of central European control is on the increase. She says that the European marketing team can be very useful in generating broad brush strategic direction for a brand and developing educational campaigns that can be adapted and used in the local markets.

But once they start trying to drive the detail aid and the campaign forward on a European basis, you're going to end up with a homogenised approach which won't work as well as it could do in each individual market, she notes. That can be very frustrating for a brand manager who's been told to do things that have worked well in Germany and France but require a different approach in the UK.


Making a business case
So what should be on the agenda for a bona fide brand manager who genuinely wants to take their brand to new levels? Clark is of the opinion that selling skills are simply not enough; they need to be able to understand finance to make a business case and be difficult 'door-bangers' unafraid to challenge senior management in a debate. They need to go beyond emotional pleas to double the number of reps and explore all possibilities, including more clinical trials, line extensions or the acquisition of another brand to attain greater call volume and frequency.

Brand managers should be sitting in there with the finance department, driving a review of the P&L, demanding first detail for their product based on an accurate forecast, but I'm not convinced that that is the remit that's given to them regularly, he says. If you're a product manager in an FMCG company, senior management will say 'the product's doing £9m, so you go away and tell us what we need to do to grow to £12m'. Yet, in pharma, we don't always have that dynamic tension. Brand managers are handed a global plan and told to deliver £10m.

The brand manager role is a steep learning curve and for those who make a success of their stint, a whole raft of exciting possibilities can suddenly open up. Most brand managers will make the step up to group product manager or perhaps marketing manager in a smaller company. Some may see it as the route into sales management and will move into regional or even national roles. Given that a substantial quantity of people going down the brand manager track have been reps, companies have to be sure that they have acquired the necessary skills and experience to take on the extra burden of responsibility that their new job entails.

The consensus in the industry is that being a rep serves as a good grounding for the role, as it helps candidates understand the pressures and difficulties the salesforce can encounter out in the field. Ex-reps are also more likely to win over the salesforce and produce material that, in their eyes, is credible.

If brand managers don't understand those pressures and traumas, then there's a risk that the material they produce will not be worthwhile, Morris warns.

Clark reiterates that success in brand management requires a lot more than an impressive track record in selling; he lists aptitude at finance as well as planning, influencing and general business skills as `must-haves'.

People from the salesforce can make exceptionally good brand managers, but many of them are execution specialists who don't like grappling with medium- to long-term strategy, he says.

A rep who has two to three years' experience can have all the financial numeracy and analytical reasoning skills that you could ask for, but could you trust them to go and see a key opinion leader who has a direct line with health technology assessment and manage to influence them?

He recounts how, as a marketing director, he once recruited an international product manager straight from the Boston Consulting Group (general management consultancy).

Everyone said I was mad, but this person had a tremendous impact because he had the right breadth of skills, he explains.

Scope to create change
Despite the effects of stock market pressure and centralisation, there is no question that there will always be scope in the future for brand managers to create some change from within. Clark believes that pharmaceutical firms will eventually realise that the central control and strategic-marketing-knows best philosophy is driving the talent out of brand management at a local level and handing responsibility back to marketers on the ground who are more than execution specialists.

One thing is certain: whatever will be asked of the brand managers of tomorrow, there'll be no hiding from that spotlight.

The author
Gareth Carpenter is assistant editor of Pharmaceutical Marketing magazine

2nd September 2008


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