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Start small but think big

Exploring the potential of agility in unlocking creativity


When Sanofi US issued a witty retort to Roseanne Barr’s tweet alleging that it was one of Sanofi’s treatments that had caused her to make racist comments, the company was bombarded with positive media coverage and more than 170,000 likes from the Twittersphere.

Sanofi’s seemingly off-the-cuff response caused a real buzz in the industry: it was an all-too-rare example of a pharmaceutical company communicating not just with humour but with a speed and agility that, for many of us, felt nothing short of astonishing.

If it had taken Sanofi two days or a week to respond to Barr’s tweet (and, let’s face it, this is all-too-easy to imagine in the world of pharma comms), it would have lost its impact because it would have lost its relevance.

Sanofi’s tweet felt innovative because it connected and responded to the company’s audience in a way that pharmaceutical companies seldom do. Sanofi got it right because it was switched on and tuned in.

Are we planning ourselves into a corner?

When the Cannes or Canned? working group discussed what was holding back innovation in healthcare communications, one of the themes we came back to time and time again was the way that our planning and approval processes often stood in the way of our ability to respond to our customers.

Ways of working that focus on annual plans and lengthy and multi-layered approval processes are common in our industry. This can feed a tendency to think in terms of large, complex communications initiatives and months – or even longer – between a project’s inception and its roll-out.

We think it’s time to challenge this: to ask ourselves whether 12-month or 18-month planning cycles are costing us the opportunity to tune in to our audiences and respond to what they want and need.

Get ready to respond

One of the Cannes or Canned? group’s five recommendations for unlocking the power of innovation in healthcare communications is to strip back processes and streamline activities to enable communications that are agile and responsive to stakeholders’ needs.

The group agreed that shifting away from cumbersome planning processes could enable us to focus on the activities that matter most to our stakeholders. There is nothing wrong – and often a great deal that is right – with big, ambitious projects, but are we investing our time and energy in them at the expense of simpler, faster-acting opportunities to connect with our audiences? What could we achieve if we could speed things up?

Agile working has its roots in software development, where projects can be notoriously long and complex. It emphasises the importance of individuals and interactions, customer collaboration, responding to change and prototyping over and above processes.

Adopting agile practices sets the scene for working more dynamically and more collaboratively, and in a way that keeps us tuned in by keeping the customer’s perspective front and centre. We believe it could help us all to make space for the creativity and innovation we want to see in our communications.

Doing more with less...

Agile working requires fast decision-making, and smaller teams can help to make this possible. Smaller teams – made up of the right people – can drive faster decision-making and quicker delivery of projects.

Deloitte’s Future of Work initiative highlights the increasingly important role that contractors, freelancers and external experts play in building the flexible and agile teams that companies need.

Healthcare communications has a large and diverse pool of talented and highly experienced freelancers. In these gig economy times there is a wealth of designers, digital experts, writers and strategists out there who we can call upon, too. Let’s get agile and put their skills to work!

...and doing it flexibly

Rather than setting a big project in motion and then working through a series of steps until the project is completed and the initiative is delivered to its audiences in its final form many months after we started work, agile working advocates breaking the project down into discrete deliverables.

This can give us multiple opportunities to assess, rethink and evolve to ensure that the project is delivering at every stage. It can encourage us to stay tuned in to our audiences and stops us from falling into the trap of seeing our project as being too big to change.

More agile means more inclusive

Compliance is always seen as the great stumbling block when it comes to creative communications in healthcare. But, by including medical, legal and regulatory representatives in our teams we can take reviewers on the journey with us, rather than simply presenting them with what we hope to be the finished product at the end of the process.

By bringing them onboard as early as possible, we can make the case for our campaigns, build trust and demonstrate how we have mitigated any risks.

We can work with them to find solutions to the challenges that might otherwise stifle our creativity and thwart our most innovative plans. Together, we can find the best answers and the best solutions for our customers and, ultimately, for our patients.

How agility can work for us

Taking a survey of patients’ experiences as an example, a standard approach might see us spend six months laying the groundwork for a large-scale survey that asked 500 patients in each of ten countries to respond to a set of 30 questions.

Before being seen by any patients, the survey questions would need to be agreed upon and approved by all ten countries. We might also need to gain the support of multiple global and national advocacy groups. Only once all of these processes had been completed could we start gathering responses to the survey.

Once the surveys had been completed in every country, we would need to analyse the data and develop messaging and materials for use in pan-European and national activities, all of which would need to be approved.

With so many teams and people involved, changing direction could become almost impossible once the project was underway, even if a change in direction could give us better results. The project could become a juggernaut, unstoppable and inflexible.

Agile working would see us taking a different approach. We might start by running a survey in just one country, focusing only on a handful of questions that will give us the insights we know matter most to our target audience.

We would include multiple touchpoints with our audience over the course of the project so we never lost sight of what they wanted and needed, and could respond quickly to any new insights or opportunities. The project would be run by a small team working closely with medical, legal and regulatory advisors from the beginning to streamline approvals.

If the results provided valuable insight, then we would map out how to take the project to the next level, putting everything we had learned to date into practice while maintaining a willingness to be flexible, to adapt and change course. This might mean that the end of the project is not what we had expected at the onset, which does require a common alignment to a vision and trust in each other.

There are no guarantees, but we think this approach has the potential to deliver communications that are fresh, inspiring, bold and current: the type of communications that make people sit up and take note – the type of communications that we think the pharmaceutical industry deserves.

It starts with us (and you)

When it comes down to it, our ability to be creative and to innovate in healthcare communications is tied tightly to our ability to tune in to our audiences.

By stripping back processes and adopting more agile ways of working, we can get closer to our audiences and free ourselves to adapt and flex to what they want and need.

We’re not suggesting tearing down the processes that exist to ensure we all work to the highest possible standards, but we are passionate about rethinking how we work to break down the barriers that are stifling our capacity to lead the way in creative communications.

Edel McCaffrey is a member of the HCA’s Executive Committee and an independent communications consultant; Peter Impey is Managing Director of 90TEN Communications; Philip Atkinson founded Hive-Logic to support individuals, teams and business to grow through greater awareness, skills and agility



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