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Talent fish or flounder

A team with passion and innovation can take a healthcare agency to the top

Phil Chin, managing director and co-founder of Langland It was a hypnotic that did it. I'd been "carrying the bag" up and down the Black Country for years, stuffed with NSAIDs, steroids and antibiotic drugs for STDs, bronchitis and UTIs. The GPs in Birmingham and the West Midlands were mostly Asian, with melodic accents chiming incongruously with Brummie slang and broad vowels. And there I was, first generation Welsh, son of refugees from the Cultural Revolution, repping for an Italian pharma company, navigating the complexities of language and landscape in my head-turning Fiat 131 Mirafiori, on the fast track to fame and fortune.

The fame and fortune bit took a little longer than I'd anticipated. There was the exhilarating graduation to hospital rep, exchanging that bulky black valise for a slick briefcase of terribly highbrow clinical papers; a specialist in special meetings with specialists. Cardboard cups of coffee with colleagues and competitors, huddled against the wind and drizzle in hospital car parks in Walsall, West Bromwich or Wolverhampton, talking about solid tumours, chemo and hormonal therapies, measuring our progress up the corporate ladder by the chrome insignia of our Vauxhall Cavaliers. We looked down our noses at the lowly Ls, proud of our GLs, and we were desperately jealous of those with the GLS.

Then came the thrilling promotion to product manager – acknowledgement at last of my undeniable talent and strategic brilliance – and my first great chance to prove it. My initial task was to develop a brand plan for a hypnotic. I knew the brand inside-out. I'd sold it, which I presumed gave me the knowledge I needed, so I threw myself into the situation analysis, the positioning strategy, the market forecasts and the P&L. I prepared charts and graphs of every shape and colour. I had a bullet-proof pre-sell and an irresistible close.

My marketing director was a big character with a reputation for tearing the heads off precocious young tyros; the Alex Ferguson of healthcare marketing. But I knew he'd love it. He had been the one who had spotted my talent and given me the opportunity to rise to stardom.

There was silence when I finished – a long, aching silence. A minute passed, maybe two. Then, quite clinically, he proceeded to expose the gaping holes in my thinking, the obvious flaws in my argument, the critical factors I hadn't considered, and gave a precise summary of the plan I should have presented, backed by the irrefutable logic of why it would work in the marketplace.

In the years that followed, learning the ropes of medical affairs and market research, gaining international experience in Milan and Uppsala, climbing the marketing ladder, that meeting in the London office stayed with me and challenged me to think smarter, to learn harder and to value every experience as a lesson. The epiphany was as simple as it was profound. My 64KB marketing brain had come up against 10GBs of knowledge and experience. I'd come face-to-face with real talent.

Managing talent
In the UK launch issue of Wired, five media gurus were asked how they'd invest $100m in media today. Three of them said they'd put it all into talent.

"I'd invest in talent – technical, innovatory, journalistic, managerial...", said Roger Alton, editor of The Independent.

"I'd stop worrying about technology, and would amass a dream team of fantastic, opinionated journalists...", said Colin Gottlieb, CEO, Omnicom Media Group.

"It's about talent – so I'd invest in a talent company. The need for talent is the one thing that remains consistent...", said Stephen Miron, CEO, Global Radio.

To say, as we frequently do in advertising and marketing, that "our people are everything" or "talent is our only asset", is rather like saying that world peace would be a good thing, which is probably true, but not particularly helpful. Yet I've heard HR gurus suggesting recently that it's only worth cultivating the top 20 per cent of your staff. More perniciously still, I have seen – over the past 15 or 20 years – a depressing spiral of talent mismanagement that is systematically robbing the healthcare world of many of its best and brightest brains. Some of this has been driven by the industry-wide pressure on headcount, or by the increasingly restrictive nature of the health service environment. However, the greatest driver is the failure to grasp the obvious correlation between superior talent and superior results.

Take, for example, the marketing function in many biopharmaceutical companies. Not long ago the responsibility for developing and managing product and brand strategies would have been in the hands of a senior marketing director whose reports would have included only those functions relating to marketing and, possibly, sales. Now, that same person is more than likely known as a business unit or franchise director. He or she will often play a strategic group role, with a portfolio of direct and indirect reports on medical affairs, regulation, legal issues and market access; in other words, the entire landscape relating to overall business strategy. Sales and marketing, while nominally remaining his or her responsibility, have been devolved to someone who has often spent no more than two or three years as a product manager and who is expected to do a 10GB job with a 64KB brain.

"I'm new to this marketing stuff – I've just come from operations/sales." It's something I've heard often when being introduced to the new marketing lead at the beginning of a strategy meeting, and never without that sinking feeling. I have seen recruitment ads in this very magazine for brand managers who "ideally" – but not essentially – should have a whopping three years of experience in a marketing role.

It's as if the marketing role in healthcare has become some sort of vague apprenticeship for bigger and better things, with people learning on the job. The message to their colleagues, and to their communications partners, is that it simply doesn't matter all that much whether brands are well positioned or clearly represented to the market. Open any journal and you'll see great brands sliding into swamps of disrepute through lazy thinking and awful execution. And then, when the business unit/franchise director suddenly realises that there is a strategic disaster unfolding two floors below, you'll find yourself (as we've done recently) in a crisis pitch to rescue the brand from the quicksand.

The upside of working with 64KB talent, from an agency's point of view, is that they may be more receptive to our counsel and support. The cost to the client in terms of sheer inefficiency and opportunities missed must surely be incalculable.

Added to this, the talent gene pool in healthcare is becoming increasingly shallow and lacks knowledge, experience and culture. That it needs to attract talent from consumer advertising and marketing, as well as from entirely different disciplines, is becoming increasingly apparent.

In contrast, it was refreshing to work on a recent project with Pfizer that had senior involvement at all the critical decision points, from strategy through to final execution. There was appropriate delegation to the marketing communications staff, with whom we worked closely, but they, in turn, knew when and how to engage higher-level decision makers in the process. In the end, the 40GB team produced an 80GB piece of work.

Finding talent is a talent in itself. You can know the theory, as I do, without necessarily being good at putting it into practice. Like riding a bicycle, I suppose. So I'm lucky to have found (and married) one of the best talent spotters in the business. Jo's views on the art of separating the best from the good are worth an article of their own. But here are the five key pointers.

The first thing we look for is evidence of achievement in more than just one area. A brilliant academic record may get you the interview, but it's your awards for stand-up comedy or your passion for protecting the coral reefs that'll get you the job.

Second, there's the approach to the interview. The best people treat it as a competition to outsmart the opposition, perhaps via a hand-delivered CV, or innovative packaging for their portfolio. The stronger candidates will have gone out of their way to research our company. They'll be able to talk about our work, our client portfolio and our company ethos. The weaker may only have had a cursory look at our website. And it shows. At the second interview stage, which often calls for a 15-minute presentation, the talented shine through in the way they use different media or a different way of interacting – whatever it takes to dramatise their claim to the position.

Passion is the third requirement. Candidates who are genuinely and noticeably excited by the opportunity generally maintain that level of passion. They do well because they love doing what they do.

If that isn't enough, we want them to be engaging and likeable. The more people want to work with them, both internally and externally, the more likely they are to succeed. But being nice alone isn't enough.

Outstanding talent
When choosing sprinters to run a race, you pick the outstanding; the ones that leave the competition standing. This is particularly true of creatives. So when we spot something exceptional we act without hesitation. You don't need to 'wait and see what else comes in'.

My experience on both sides of the industry has confirmed that talent selection and retention are at the heart of successful management.

The Author
Philip Chin is managing director and co-founder of Langland. His pharmaceutical experience spans sales, marketing, market research and medical affairs in the UK, Sweden and Italy for Farmitalia Carlo Erba. In the late 1980s, Phil moved into advertising as a director of healthcare agency Gowers Advertising. He founded Langland in 1991, which is now the UK's largest independent advertising agency in healthcare and a top 50 advertising agency in the UK.

30th June 2009

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