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The right move

It is a general rule that whatever the sector, the majority of executives enjoy a good conference. The key to the success of a conference lies in pinpointing the best strategies.

FeatureIt is a general rule that whatever the sector, the majority of executives enjoy a good conference and the pharmaceutical industry is no exception. Conferences and symposia seem to have been around since the dawn of time, and have managed to retain their popularity. They often provide the perfect opportunity to escape the confines of the office and mix with the great and the good of the industry in a stimulating environment.

While the basic event model has remained the same over the years - topical subject matter and high-profile speakers and presenters - the nature of event organising has changed immeasurably as the hunger to produce something a bit different grows. Clients and delegates become more sophisticated and the message pharma companies want to convey becomes more complex. The benchmark has been raised and so have delegates' expectations.

Tighter regulation along with the industry's emphasis on greater evaluation means that events and conference organisation in the 21st century is a serious business.

But what can pharmaceutical companies expect to get out of these events? Of course, much of the appeal can be put down to the useful networking and relationship-building opportunities that events can offer to delegates, but there is a whole host of other advantages.

Mark Handforth, healthcare director at World Event Management, says it very much depends on whether the event in question is geared to an internal or external audience.

I think motivation is quite a large part of any project for an internal audience - in this respect, companies are primarily looking to see whether the substance is there. They're looking for people to take on key messages, such as product information, to enable them to do their jobs better.

He explains that with regard to external audiences, companies are instead looking to inform and educate: It's my belief that all pharma companies now are looking at trying to be healthcare providers instead of drug suppliers - they tend to be much more sophisticated in the way they deal with the message and present it as an educational one.

The treatment of key messages is essential to the success of any conference. Lucie Flint, general manager at Medivents, says most critical success factors for marketed brands - be they raising awareness, launching new indications, presenting new trial data or merely reinforcing older key messages - are achievable through one type of meeting or an other.

Meetings generate awareness of the company, create good PR and can reinforce commitment to developments in certain disease areas, she explains. But on top of that, events are a way of reaching a lot of potential, or current, customers simultaneously and get key messages across to them in one go.

However, a lot of planning has to go into the organisation of the event if delegates are to go away feeling they have just done something meaningful. 

Changing a mindset 
The conference circuit is well established and it can be a difficult job altering the mindset of those 'old campaigners' who may approach the latest meeting with the view that 'it's just another routine conference'.

It all boils down to what your objectives are, says Flint. The best way to make an event meaningful for sponsoring companies is by allowing them to buy into the whole reason behind it in the first place. It's important to get them involved at the planning stage and ask them key questions about their target audience and what they are trying to achieve with them.

It is also useful to give delegates specific targets; sales reps could be asked to take along three of their key contacts in their territory and marketers to bring three of their key opinion leaders in an effort to motivate them for the event.

Yet, perhaps the most crucial question of all lies in whether pharmaceutical events are able to justify themselves economically. The ability to demonstrate return on investment (RoI) is paramount if meetings are ever to get beyond the one-off stage. For one thing, marketing departments need to justify spend and sales management need to justify pulling sales reps off territory for a couple of days.

Marketers are being put under increasing pressure to justify every piece of expenditure, and are looking, therefore, to measure impact and RoI, says Flint.

When I was at Elan, we started to focus a great deal on evaluation because we were doing lots of meetings and we really needed to know which meetings were delivering the best RoIs so that we could continue to invest in those areas and drop those that weren't delivering for us. If you're doing that, and if your budget is cut halfway through the year, you immediately know how to distinguish those meetings you can afford to live without and those which you absolutely must do.

Handforth argues that effective evaluation of events isn't such a difficult task and that analysis can be done pre-event versus post-event: There are very credible ways in which we've been able to test RoI at the meeting itself, such as what we term the `happy' sheet; this generates lots of key information and tells you to some extent how much people have taken on board the message.

He adds that companies are getting more serious about their happy sheets and that's great because as a professional I want to evaluate the event as well as possible.

Jenny Abbot, director of event operations at MCI, is of the opinion that successful events are benchmarked on a number of different criteria, such as measuring a greater product knowledge, brand awareness or generated leads.

From an events agency standpoint, the balance between the solid procurement line, which is becoming more and more prevalent, and the event client and organiser is a hard one to achieve for all concerned, she continues. A harder line on visible negotiated savings is showing itself to be key and, frankly, the ideal is a good balance between the two. Pricing methods must be adopted that will continue to allow for the fact that, and consider that there is, a true value to creativity, innovation and quality delivery and it's not simply a numbers game.

Watching the pennies
The current emphasis on measurement of RoI in events begs the question of whether pressures on the industry, such as squeezed profit margins, smaller pipelines and tighter regulation, are taking their toll on the events sector. To put it bluntly, are firms becoming more frugal with their cash when it comes to sponsoring events?

Abbot doesn't think so and believes that companies are merely looking to ensure they get value for money: They should trust their judgement in their professional procurement and agency selection, and work with their agencies to monitor savings and value added services. I believe you get what you pay for in this industry, says Abbot.

Budgets may be getting squeezed a bit but I think the main development is that companies are simply becoming more sophisticated in the way they spend their marketing budget, says Flint. I've found in the last couple of years that if, when presenting your plans, you don't justify why you're planning to invest in a particular area, you won't get the budget. You're expected to go into a lot more detail now.

Measuring the value of events is not the only driver that shapes events - there are certain pitfalls to be aware of. In an industry generally regarded as one of the most heavily regulated in the world, it comes as no surprise to hear that pharmaceutical company events come under as much scrutiny as their products.

From the amount of money spent on 'wining and dining' delegates to the choice of location to the promotional methods used, you can be sure that for every piece of the jigsaw there will be some rules and regulations to follow. Non-compliance could turn an otherwise flawless event into a PR disaster.

The ABPI Code of Practice is riddled with things to look out for regarding meetings, says Flint. But in my recent experience I've found that companies are very switched on to it and behave very cautiously.

Handforth says that pan-European events can throw up added complications; local rules that also have to be adhered to.

Race against time
Perhaps the biggest pitfall to avoid is quite simply getting into a race against the clock. Once they've had the budget sign-off, firms can sometimes be guilty of not providing adequate time-lines for delivery of the finished product. For example, established international key opinion leaders are often booked 18 months ahead, so it can sometimes be difficult to meet expectations.

It's not uncommon for people to say they'd like to hold a stand-alone meeting in six weeks time, says Flint. That's just not going to happen because you have got to give speakers months of notice for a start. To be fair, clients do take this on board once they see that delivering to the timescale they originally wanted could actually impinge on their objectives.

The key to a successful conference lies not only in pinpointing strategies and acting upon them, but it also involves a great deal of common sense communication between client and agency to ensure that the overall project remains focused.

Agencies need to get as close as possible to clients and their objectives to ensure they have a deep understanding of what the client is trying to achieve, says Abbot. They then have to develop an event strategy that will not only deliver a focused, fault-free event but also on budget, with negotiated savings and RoI visible to all.

Things to look out for
Event organisation - key guidelines for delivering the perfect brief:

  • Know your marketing objectives: What are the overall objectives for the brand and what are the expected outcomes for the company? Are these targets realistic enough?
  • Know your target audience: It is crucial to know you're communicating at the right level.
  • Know your event format: Do you have a venue in mind? One-day or two-day event? Upfront presentations? Interactive sessions? A combination of the two?
  • Know your budget restraints: Be realistic about what you can achieve.
  • Get your timing right: Not just in respect to when you want to hold the event but more importantly, don't leave it too late. Make sure you leave enough lead-in time to allow all your objectives to be met.
  • Know your key messages: This is where it starts to get more sophisticated. The best route to creating clear and effective messages is by forming a project team with regular brainstorming sessions.
  • Bear in mind the ABPI Code of Practice: Non-compliance could be disastrous. Check that everything is in place in terms of the copy approval process. If you're planning an event on the continent, be aware that different EU countries have different local rules.
  • Don't over-manage it!: Set your objectives and targets at the start and stick to achieving them. Don't get into the habit of arranging meetings about meetings.

Choosing the right agency

  • Can I work with these people?: It is vitally important to ask: who is presenting to me? You may see a sales team or company director but it is also vital that you meet the operations staff who will work on your event.
  • Understanding the brief: Has the agency understood the brief? Has it challenged it and gone that extra mile? Does it have experience in working for pharma clients?
  • Know your event format: Does the theme presented for your event meet your brief? Be open to new ideas even if you don't think they quite fit the bill. Look at the creativity and thinking behind it - the process may be more important than this execution Has the agency been creative in its choice of location, content, speakers, teambuilding events, entertainment and AV? Has the agency suggested any cost-saving ideas?
  • Capability: Has the agency presented detailed examples of similar events it has organised for other clients, and/or references? Is the agency capable of handling an event of this type or size? Does it have any operations manuals? Will the agency be able to manage all aspects of your event?
  • Faculty management: Will the agency be able to deal effectively with your key opinion leaders, presenters and senior management? Experience in working in pharma will be an advantage here.
  • Cost: Is the proposal within budget? Is it good value for money? Has the agency presented a 'shopping list' of extras to consider? Has the agency suggested potential savings through negotiations over a package deal for a series of events?
  • The basics: Does the proposal meet your brief and objectives?

The Author
Gareth Carpenter is a freelance pharmaceutical and healthcare journalist.

2nd September 2008

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