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Launch engagement

How the pandemic is forcing a fresh focus on the human touch and fresh thinking about engagement

Subtle changes in wind velocity, direction, field of vision and climate forecasts can halt a launch countdown before it gets to single figures; this is why space agencies are accustomed to making sure every single metric is within agreed tolerances before lift-off.

For the pharmaceutical industry, launches have taken on a new set of dynamics during the pandemic creating hyper concern about blast- offs, particularly when years of R&D, funding and human life are at stake.

Routes of delivery, riveted with experience, have corroded as R&D teams, strategists, MSLs and sales teams became disconnected from clinicians and healthcare professionals (HCPs), scrambling product launch countdowns – if they were a space shuttle or satellite, mission control would have aborted for more favourable conditions.

Many companies simply delayed and deferred but some used the pandemic’s straightjacket control on traditional methods to wriggle into new ways of working to realise the potential of R&D programmes that brought therapies to the launch pad.

The challenge has forged innovation and, for an industry wreathed in slow-twitch response mechanisms, the launch arena is zinging with fresh approaches that promise to deliver on sales targets and, critically, open up new opportunities to connect with HCPs and patients at a deeper level.

The launches that did go ahead were infused with creative energy and some scored more engagement than they might have done through heritage playbooks. The pandemic has been an accelerant, with pharmaceutical companies compelled to evaluate every aspect of how they connect with stakeholders.

Any lingering doubts about the relevance of agility, flexibility and the need to deploy technology to engage stakeholders have been clearly answered.

“The pandemic has completely disrupted the status quo. Everything we knew; everything we did suddenly had to be viewed differently, but it has also been a catalyst for remarkable change,” said Mike Ballas of The Creative Engagement Group (TCEG), the collective of specialists with reach across scientific engagement, digital learning, capability development, employee engagement, experiential (virtual, hybrid and live) and content that are all core components of effective product launches.

“The default launch involved live events and most believed it would not be possible without that element. There was a ‘wait and see’ approach in the first three months but clients have gradually become bolder and embraced new opportunities.

“Big pharma has historically been fairly conservative and it has been forced to be more strident in pivoting internally. The results are a better understanding of clinician insights and empowering sales representatives, medical affairs and MSLs to really harness and make use of these insights with their respective customers.”

Bravery and innovation

Shutting down traditional channels has effectively democratised voices along the value chain with online meetings becoming fertile forums to dispense knowledge across internal and external elements of a launch spectrum. The key derivative identified is the human touch. It is time for behavioural science to take centre stage.

“The focus has shifted to a human-centric approach, decentralised and customised to individual needs,” added Ballas. “It’s about engaging with everybody who’s involved in delivering the outcomes to patients. Using digital platforms and promoting a digital fluency has actually created more time and space to educate teams on drugs, their interactions and where they fit into the competitive landscape.

“We have helped clients become more comfortable with this environment and become braver and open to change. There was a certain amount of doing things a certain way because that was the way; now there is more innovation.

“It’s been good to see them have to be brave. There was so much learnt pressure to do things a certain way because that’s how it was always done. Now they have to think of something new.

“What we have seen is that companies can be comfortable with risk, providing it is based on insight, knowledge and innovation. Strategic planning, comprehensive and robust launch frameworks to capture all actions along with tracking are still essentials, but the really exciting bit is that everything is becoming more human-centric.

“Ultimately, this means patients will benefit because they will get the right therapy at the right time.”

TCEG, which has bases in the UK and the US, had already built up significant digital delivery tools and skills enabling it to move confidently towards online launches and its ethos of pushing creative boundaries has a natural home in this world of change.

Tailoring each launch

Launching a new product is never easy – 40% of worldwide drug launches between 2009 and 2017 failed to meet their two-year sales forecast, according to a McKinsey report – so piling on layers of uncertainty and commercial reorganisation into a launch has not been for the faint-hearted over the last year.

The need for due diligence across risk- management and a tight control on processes with clear priorities remains, no matter what the scope of innovation, but it is clear that launches need to be individually tailored. The days of dusting down a launch pattern book are over.

James Aird, a pharmaceutical strategy consultant at the global healthcare consultancy Evida, has advised numerous high-profile launches and is well versed in shepherding brands through the pitted territories leading up to launch.

“Some brands have held off launching while others have pivoted because they were well prepared and were already using a hybrid model in terms of launch execution and customer communications,” he said. “For those further behind the curve, the pandemic has accelerated their digital deployment.

“Pharma is not regarded as the nimblest of beasts at the best of times so it has been pleasing to see some companies successfully turn it around quickly.”

Planning and development processes are not fundamentally changing, he added, but their mechanics have been recalibrated. This presents challenges as well as opportunities.

“The main change on the planning side is shifting from face-to-face meetings where you would typically hash everything out in a large cross-functional forum. You can’t do that so easily over Zoom or Skype,” he said. “Getting that deep engagement and cross-functional alignment has become harder.

“Can you do this legwork with a smaller core team and bring people in as and when needed to review? For smaller companies, yes, but I’m not sure Big Pharma is ready to embrace that fully, especially where dogmatic governance structures are at play and flexibility is limited.

“The levels of optimism surrounding departures from traditional models depends on the depth of entrenched behaviours and processes.

“Senior leaders have a huge role to play here. We’ve seen examples of some who are essentially putting their head in the sand and waiting
until it all blows over. Others are taking a more proactive approach.

“The key message is that, in terms of uncertainty, you have to actively manage it head-on and be prepared to be more flexible.”

Engagement is not an afterthought

Evida, a part of the AMICULUM family of agencies, is a boutique consultancy that helps clients answer their big questions in healthcare. It has observed a growing need for the independent ‘sounding board’ services it provides, as uncertainty has ramped up during the pandemic and teams engage with a challenger mindset to find the best routes forward.

Pharma has faced the extra complexity of clinicians and HCPs being otherwise engaged with COVID-19 and barely having time to raise their heads to engage with a new therapy. They are also much less likely to change their patients’ current medication as they do not have the bandwidth to monitor progress, added Aird.

“We’ve seen this in the slowing down of the dynamic/switch market, the traditional feeding ground for new launches. In some instances, the traditional assumptions behind the patient journey and prescribing dynamics have fallen away.

“In terms of launch preparation, we have to rethink our understanding of the patient, who’s treating them based on the dynamics and pressures they face in today’s COVID-19 environment. And we can do a much better job of engaging with the markets to help provide that insight.

“Market engagement must be seen as an opportunity for significant added value, not an afterthought.”

Launch planning has been buffeted by delays across the regulatory framework with market authorisation slowing and disrupting timelines, said Nick Williams, managing partner of Triducive, the agency that combines commercial healthcare experience with expertise in structured expert consensus to create impetus and advocacy around the factors that drive decisions, to create change.

“Launches are about coordinating people around tasks that need to be done and the better you can align, co-ordinate and motivate people around those tasks and their delivery, then the more successful the launch,” he added.

“We know that the mechanical components of a launch over this last year have been more about how you engage your team and get them working on the right things and knowing where they’re at. We’ve done a lot of work with organisations around adopting ‘agile’ principles of working and how technology can help that during the pandemic.

“It has forced us to change the way we think about launches, but we really have to change the way we think about everything, not just launches.”

Flexibility and freedoms

Williams added: “We need to think about what we are really trying to do and achieve rather than how we continue to run the monthly brand team meeting using a virtual platform. It’s about having greater clarity on the objectives and figuring out how to better achieve them.”

Deploying digital platforms and switching from dour office meeting schedules to Working from Home flexibility may feel liberating, but Williams cautions that these new tools can impose their own borders and limitations.

“There are good aspects and some of those will be maintained as we emerge from the pandemic; only time will tell how many,” he said. “But what has happened is a realisation that you can trust your team to work from other locations and still deliver on things as a team. There’s no substitute for that personal exchange in the office but it has taught us that we can achieve quite a lot by granting people greater flexibilities and freedoms.

“We focus hard on market shaping and the pandemic has shown how important that is. A product may have been designed ten years ago and will be launched into an environment that has changed over that time.

“To achieve launch success, you need to think about how you shape the environment, the guidelines, the attitudes, the behaviours and the demand. You need to engage with the right people and the right activities to build consensus.

“You can’t just shout louder about something that doesn’t quite fit, you have to make it fit better and enable your voice to perform well.

“How much of this change, in process and mindset, will stick remains to be seen but it has sharpened the imperative of engaging with people and behaviours.”

As TCEG’s Mike Ballas observed: “It’s humans that make change happen and you can only do that with people engagement. In order to do that, you need to understand their current behaviour, their mindset and the environment.”

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

18th May 2021

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

18th May 2021

From: Marketing

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