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Fishing in a small pond

A career in healthcare marketing has many attractions, so why is the industry finding it so hard to recruit enough high-calibre candidates?

picture of a fish bowlIt appears to be a no-brainer. Salaries on the whole are good, intellectual challenge is a given, and the work makes a direct contribution to good health and longer life for millions of people.

On top of this, there are often opportunities for international travel, as well as meeting a variety of interesting individuals motivated by trying to make a difference. Why, then, is there such a shortage of skilled and experienced people to work in pharmaceutical marketing?

It may come as a surprise but recruitment has been identified, both in surveys and anectdotally, as a business-critical issue for the pharmaceutical industry and the agencies that serve it.

If you are targeting other marketing people in the industry then the answer is yes, there is a shortage of talent because itís a very small pool, says Andrew Armes, head of talent resourcing and development at AstraZeneca. The best pharmaceutical marketers can pick and choose where they work and what they do, because their expertise is in such short supply, he says.

However, Armes is not persuaded that marketers need to be insiders with years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry in order to make its brands successful. Instead, Armes thinks that pharmaceutical companies need to cast the net much wider by seeking experienced marketers from other business sectors.

As long as you are open minded about the ability of people to market any kind of product or service, then there is talent out there, Armes affirms. In his view, there is no reason why an intelligent person who is good at marketing mobile phones or financial services could not also successfully build pharmaceutical brands. If you are looking at a market that stretches across all industries, [the talent pool] is huge. You just have to be smart about how you target all those people.

AstraZeneca is committed to the idea of extending its reach for talent, Armes says. So much so, that his own job objectives include a target for recruiting people from outside the pharmaceutical industry.

In many ways, perhaps we are fishing in a smaller pond than we could, agrees David Holliday, business unit director for Baxter Healthcareís biosciences division and a 20-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry. But I think there is always a balance when youíre recruiting. They [marketers] need to understand the ABPI Code of Practice, they need to understand how hospitals work, and they need to understand the selling process.

Making the most of internal talent
In most companies, the traditional route has been to come up through sales into marketing, observes Dr Paul Stuart-Kregor, director of the MSI Consultancy, which provides management, marketing and training support to the industry.

The consensus does seem to be that it is essential for marketers to carry the bag for at least a while, in order to understand the needs of customers and the salesforce.

While sales experience is certainly valuable, making the transition from on-the-road rep to marketing can be a huge challenge, Dr Stuart-Kregor says. A salesperson and a marketer are not necessarily the same beast nowadays because of the complexity of marketing. The demands on marketers in pharmaceutical companies have changed hugely over the past 10 years.

He adds: Because of the nature of the market and the pressure that the industry is under, youíve got to work a lot smarter. So I can understand why some of the reps apparently are not making the grade. But thatís in part down to the fact that industry is not investing in training these people.

This is why the MSI Consultancy has been working with the Pharmaceutical Marketing Society to develop PRIME, a training programme that aims to provide a good grounding for people taking on a marketing role for the first time. The training is focused very tightly on the needs of the pharmaceutical industry and aims to provide a practical foundation.

Another way to look at staff development is to consider recruiting marketers from other parts of the company and not just from sales, suggests Dr Stuart-Kregor. For example, pharmaceutical companies could sound out their R&D departments for new talent. Boffins can sometimes make very good marketers and already have a good industry grounding.

Better career development paths might also help to fill thegaps, says AstraZenecaís Armes. In the past, we havenít painted a clear enough picture for people coming into the organisation about how they can develop their careers from a marketing perspective, or for any particular role.

In the past two years, the company has introduced a clear and transparent career pathway and talent management process, he says. This allows people to see how promotions are decided, how they can take a practice role in developing their own careers, and how capabilities can be transferred between roles.

Further on down the line, this process can also help people look outside of marketing to other parts of the company when they are seeking to move into more senior jobs, he adds. If youíre willing to be broadminded and open about your career development, there are opportunities to move up the organisation, not just simply in a marketing environment.

Taking on new roles, for example in human resources or finance, can create a cross-functional CV that opens doors on the top floor of the company.

In David Hollidayís view, the best career development tool yet invented is a good line manager. The company can have many good development programmes, training policies and everything else, but the bottom line for me is really down tohow enthusiastic a personís line manager is. Itís all down to good leadership, mentoring and support. Itís about giving people the opportunities, stretching them, and giving them new challenges.

Baxter is also committed to developing people internally and Holliday says good succession planning is a priority. Letís face it, going external is expensive. My preference is to develop and promote people from within and as an exception go outside, which has the benefit of bringing in new ideas, new talents and new strengths.

Developing graduates
One way in which the pharmaceutical industry stands out is in its reluctance to hire new graduates into marketing positions. Traditionally, to get a foot in the door of either the pharmaceutical industry or the myriad services companies operating around it, graduates have been expected to come to interviews armed with at least a science degree.

This has often been seen as the prerequisite for new entrants to start to learn the ropes and then progress steadfastly up the ranks as they gain more experience. Such a career path has usually been confined to companiesí science-based functions such as drug discovery, development and clinical trials.

Few companies are willing to hire graduates directly into marketing roles, for a variety of reasons. Many times, employers simply feel that these jobs require at least a few years of valuable experience within the pharma sector.

The sophisticated nature of his companyís products and market means he is usually looking for CVs that list several years in the industry when hiring new people for sales or marketing roles, says Holliday. Few applicants have the necessary background. Sometimes we really have struggled to get good people, in terms of level of experience.

Neither do the needs of the business allow for the long periods of training that graduates might require, he adds. While staff development is a key value for his company, the needs of the business must also be considered. We need people to hit the ground running, Holliday notes. The pharmaceutical giants may be able to bankroll graduate development schemes but this isnot a viable option for medium and smaller sized companies.

Agencies are also reluctant to take on graduates, says Alice Weightman, director of Hanson Search & Selection. The reason maybe that employers see people coming straight out of universityas being not quantifiable, she says. However, there are ways to assess that, for example through assessment days.

She believes the industry is losing out because of an unwillingness to invest in the development of graduate recruits. They can be uncut diamonds. Graduates can be very enthusiastic, ambitious and hard-working.

Other industries, like finance or technology, are much more open to the idea of taking on new graduates, Weightman adds.

Off the radar
Likewise, for many potential recruits, the pharmaceutical industry is not even on the radar. Pharma firms are often conspicuous by their absence at university graduate recruitment fairs and their relatively low profile corporate branding, compared with firms in other industries, means that young, talented job seekers do not initially have a career in healthcare high on their list of aspirations when they finish their studies.

I also find that graduates themselves donít think about healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry as a career, says Weightman. People without a scientific background may also be put off, assuming that it is still a prerequisite for employment in the industry.

Recruitment advertisements for other major industries usually generate a huge response, while those for positions in healthcare all too often bring in only a trickle.

Holliday believes the industry at large should make more of an effort to reach young people at an early stage, perhaps even before they enter university.

Pharmaceuticals is one of the biggest generators of jobs and revenue for the UK, and yet there is very little that I can see in terms of people being encouraged to work in the industry.

Agency anguish
So is the recruitment crisis mirrored among the agencies that serve the pharma industry? A survey of member companies conducted by the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) found that communications agencies are facing a shortage of high-calibre candidates to fill jobs at middle and senior levels.

Staff turnover in agencies is high ñ the survey showed an annual rate of 23 per cent. Most of that activity is not caused by people leaving the field, but by employees moving from agency to agency seeking promotions or higher salaries, according to Julia Cook, chair of the HCA and principal of StepBack Consulting.

This merry-go-round is expensive for agencies and recruitment costs for HCA members went up by 33 per cent last year. High staff turnover also has the potential to disrupt client service. Accordingly, retention of senior level staff will be a priority area of action for the HCA in the coming months, Cook says.

To an extent, healthcare PR agencies are victims of their own success. Rapid growth is the main reason for the shortage of talent, Cook says. Fee income grew by 20 per cent between 2003 and 2004, and eight in 10 agencies expect further growth in the coming year. Nine in 10 plan to increase their headcounts.

Cook surmises the problem: it takes time to learn the ins and outs of the industry, and capable people canít be conjured up overnight to meet the fast-growing demand for their skills.

The Author
Colleen Shannon is a freelance healthcare and pharmaceutical journalist

2nd September 2008


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