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Interview: Laure Thibaud, Sanofi

Sanofi’s head of communications talks about her mission to build a team fit for the modern age
Laure Thibaud

The world of corporate communications has changed immeasurably over the last 20 years, a process kick-started by the evolution of the media landscape and subsequently accelerated by the huge advances in personal communications technology.

The journey that began with 24/7 news channels, spearheaded by CNN in the early 1980s, really gathered pace during the last decade as smartphones and social media amplified the speed and reach of the internet.

One person better acquainted than most with the impact of today's 'always on' news agenda is Sanofi's senior vice president of corporate communications Laure Thibaud. The value big pharma companies like Sanofi now place on 'corp comms' is clear from Thibaud's place on Sanofi's global leadership team, the ascent to which has provided her with a clear view of the changing nature of communications and the new, increasingly strategic, demands being placed on corporate communications.

Team building
A major change for anyone working in communications has been the shift from dealing only with newswires to coping with digital technology, and social media in particular, Thibaud says. “It has a big impact because you have no frontier and it goes so quickly that you need to be well enough prepared to anticipate wherever you can,” she says. 

Pointing to Twitter, Thibaud says she uses the social network a lot, not to tweet at present but to see what's going on and she sees advantages in the news access it provides - “sometimes you are aware of what's going on even before your team at the local level”. There is improved access too when it comes to the views of others. “We have access to so many stakeholders in just one minute, so what is important is to make sure we're consistent with our messages.”

But it's just another channel, rather than a challenge, she says. “Social media is really part of our day-to-day job. I can't see any company saying that it is not something that you need to integrate in your plan and obviously digital will continue to be a priority moving forward.” In recognition of this Thibaud created a new head of digital role when she came to design the optimal shape of her comms team on joining Sanofi in 2009.

But digital was just one area Thibaud wanted to improve. After a two-month assessment of  Sanofi's communications strengths and weaknesses, she realised she would need to change such fundamentals as the organisation of the communications function and introduce talent development processes. Revamping the company's comms structure saw her install a head of communications for each region to replace a single global position, and put alongside them global heads of divisional communications for each of Sanofi's key areas like diabetes, oncology and vaccines. “The priority really was to design the function and anticipate what could be the needs for the next five years,” she says.

The next step was to assess gaps in expertise. Digital has been mentioned already, but the company's needs went much further than that. “I did a competency analysis and a gap analysis as well as looking at the critical competencies that were needed in comms – writing skills, and expertise in media relations, crisis communications, product communications, obviously social media, and so on.” They were changes that required a big recruitment drive to bring more talent into the company.

From a strategic, investment and resource point of view we have improved dramatically and I'm very proud of our team

Thibaud's changes also saw a shift in the way the communications team worked. Among these was a move to a matrix environment with global communications heads for therapy areas interacting with regional heads of communications. “This is very important because it gives us more flexibility to the way we work,” she says.

Merger refrains
Thibaud's path to joining Sanofi nearly five years ago was just the latest step in a communications career that she began as a consultant in the early 1980s working across different, non-pharma sectors. She worked with the likes of Apple and for Air France, where she was in charge of comms for the tenth anniversary of the first Concord. 

Her first pharma role was at Glaxo, which she joined in 1990 as media relations manager, drawn by the excitement of having new stories to tell. It was also the dawn of the industry's blockbuster era, which for Glaxo meant the years of its star-performing indigestion and heartburn treatment Zantac.

Thibaud had a keen interest in healthcare but, unlike a number of those within the industry, came to pharma without a scientific background. “Glaxo's pipeline at the time included treatments for diseases like migraine and they wanted someone who had absolutely no scientific background and who would be able to see things through the eyes of a patient or the lay public,” she says.

“It was very exciting, to come fresh to such a sector where you talk to doctors and scientists, and I tried to push people to tell me in a simple way what the products are all about. What is the challenge? How does it work? And I don't want long sentences, I just want something simple that I can then explain to journalists or other stakeholders.”

That, Thibaud explains, is a central part of the comms role – explaining the industry's complex subjects in a simple enough way to give them the most impact. “And so that's what I did for a while. And then, of course, there was the merger between Glaxo and Wellcome.”

Mergers and integrations feature heavily in Thibaud's career. She's seen at first-hand three major industry deals, beginning with the combination of Glaxo and Wellcome, for which Thibaud was part of the integration committee and tasked with making the deal work from a communications perspective. 

Despite the two being British companies, both nevertheless had slightly different cultures. “Where Wellcome had more of a 'scientific' background, Glaxo was probably more focused on the commercial and marketing side, and probably more aggressive,” Thibaud says. “The challenge we had to face was how to integrate both companies successfully and then build the new company's image and reputation as well.”

Staying with Glaxo until 2007 Thibaud was also present for Glaxo Wellcome's 2000 merger with SmithKline Beecham to form GlaxoSmithKline – and she joined Sanofi in time for its $20bn acquisition of Genzyme in 2011.

“In all three cases, what is interesting is that deals like these come down to culture, though their respective cultures were very different. Sometimes you can't tell what the 'culture' is exactly, but it's always part of a company's history or its DNA - and you don't change the DNA just overnight.” 

The Genzyme deal, for which Thibaud was involved in the pre-acquisition stage of the agreement, as well as the company's subsequent integration into Sanofi, was particularly exciting, she says, thanks to its involvement in rare diseases and the true patient focus the area requires. “Chris Viehbacher has said too that he was very happy that Genzyme actually influenced Sanofi's culture in that respect.”

But there was still one final change for Sanofi-Aventis, as it was then, to make, and the impetus for that decision emerged from a market some 5,000 miles from Paris.

Translational medicine
In May 2011 the company became Sanofi, dropping the Aventis brand that was a legacy of an earlier merger. It was briefly mentioned at the time that the name change was driven by the difficulty of pronouncing the six syllables of 'Sanofi-Aventis' (still shorter than the company's previous incarnation as 'Sanofi-Synthélabo'), but Thibaud reveals the inside story.

“When we were in China, people told us, 'Well, actually more than three syllables is impossible for us in Chinese. Can you help?' So I did a survey among six or seven countries and tried to look at what could potentially be the name of the company moving forward, because if you're changing in one country, you want to change them all.”

A handful of potential names including Sanofi Pasteur, the company's vaccines division, were tested for reaction in Brazil, US, Germany, France and China, and Sanofi came out top. But it all came about from “China's strong request to help shorten the name”, says Thibaud. It also followed a series of changes at the company following Viehbacher's 2008 appointment as chief executive, such as the Genzyme deal, an increase in research partnerships and a concentration on six 'growth platforms', after which the stars seemed to align for the name change. “I thought, 'Well, there is a moment where it's probably the right time. Let's do that',” Thibaud says.

One of Sanofi's 'growth platforms' is emerging markets, and Thibaud's travel schedule last year included visits to India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand.  The destinations are not surprising when you consider Sanofi derives around a third of its sales from such emerging markets. “The healthcare system is different in each country and I remember someone saying, 'I have never met a global patient', so it's important to recognise you need to have a strong communications team at a corporate level and in all the countries we operate who can work with their general managers to understand the environment, what that means from a communication standpoint and how it fits with the company's strategy.”

Thibaud concludes with thoughts of the transformation of Sanofi's communications that she has led, saying: “From a strategic point of view, from an investment point of view, from a resource point of view, we have improved dramatically and I'm very proud of our team.”

Article by
Dominic Tyer

editorial director - PMGroup

11th February 2014

From: Marketing

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