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Promote pharma

Those that work in the industry should believe in, and actively publicise, its achievements

A neon sign reading 'pharma'In my view, our industry has achieved so much that is positive and of which it should be proud, but back in 2009 at the annual Pharmaceutical Marketing Excellence Awards (PMEA) in London, this perception was challenged. At that event, the audience listened to an on-stage interview with Chris Brinsmead, then president of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), conducted by John Clare of LionsDen Communications, which began with a deliberately negative depiction of the pharma industry.

Like many there, I had looked forward to a great night out celebrating the achievements of the European pharmaceutical industry as it shared best practices in marketing effectiveness and innovation. However, John Clare opened the discussion by presenting it as secretive and unethical.

Chris Brinsmead was then challenged with a number of contentious questions aimed at tarring the image of the industry. Chris did an admirable job in answering these questions, but both the presence and initial tone of the discussion disturbed me, as they centred on the bad name of pharma, as opposed to the positive and successful changes that I felt already existed in the industry and which I experience every day.

While I recognise that John was being deliberately provocative, the PMEA discussion gave me a perspective that the road to trust and transparency was still a long and troublesome one and that the industry still had much to accomplish before it could erase a reputation of profiteering, collusion and unethical practice. For me, both in 2009 and today in 2011, nothing could be further from the truth. 

Following the PMEA I made my feelings known to the organisers, PMGroup, and company CEO, Mark Savage, who took my observations very seriously. I spoke at length with Mark, his team and Chris Brinsmead, as I felt that the industry should take every opportunity to walk tall and celebrate the progress it had made, as opposed to what I felt was a retrospective and overbearing focus on the remaining journey still to be completed. The Awards event is a prime vehicle to show that commercial success in the industry does not have a darker side. We can be ethical, transparent and successful, bringing both profit to the industry and improved healthcare to people, which is why I could not think of a better industry in which to be employed.

I have worked on both sides of the fence, in both pharmaceutical governance and in sales and marketing, over the past 12 years. Today, I work for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in marketing, where I have been for the past four years. My decisions contribute to GSK's commercial success, but in parallel also extend to providing good health for patients and delivering value to those who fund or prescribe our medicines. 

While my thoughts here centre on my experience at GSK, they are also based on my previous years in the industry. I have witnessed a huge and positive change in institutional transparency and governance during this time and an equally sizeable shift in the minds of those who work in the industry. Companies like GSK began taking action against the mistakes of the past many years ago. This is why the PMEA discussion annoyed me, as I feel that I operate in a company that works tirelessly to do the right thing, not just to work within the rules and to restore trust, but to act and operate transparently and ethically, because it is the right and the only thing that a business and an industry should do. I am positive that I am not alone in this belief.

What I witness every day at GSK is an attitude of wanting to do right, emanating from both the heart and the mind. In my early years as part of this industry, the ABPI's then new marketing Code restrictions were initially considered as imposed boundaries, needed to help clean up our act. The industry was still learning to operate within a new space, having previously enjoyed much greater freedom. So, naturally the focus was on understanding how to operate within new rules, without contravening them. At times this meant concentrating on how close to the edge one could push the rules, and such behaviour shows that a body like the ABPI is vital in setting limits and clarifying why they are needed.

When I look back at this early part of my marketing career, I see the naivety of some of my actions and of those of people around me, as we tested how far we could go while staying within the remit of the Code. For me now, rules are to be bettered and not tested and this outlook is one I see as the norm today. Success based on doing the right thing from the outset is better than success achieved at the fringes. Pushing at the boundaries against competitors or with customers, whether they are prescribers, payers or patients, is not good business. Earning and maintaining trust is great business, opens doors to innovation and partnership and allows us to achieve our core business aim of helping patients do more, feel better and live longer. 

A further demonstration of how far the industry has come is shown in the aftermath of the scandals at Enron and WorldCom. Corporate governance and executive responsibility became a priority but, as with the early Code changes for pharma, corporate governance was an applied exercise as opposed to a belief shift. I recall being subjected to regular assessments, which tested my understanding of organisational citizenship and usually culminated in signing a declaration of understanding. These assessments seemed less about helping me to reset my moral compass, and more about ensuring that I was fully aware of my potential culpability in the event of an issue. 

Again, today these experiences feel very distant and very contrived. At GSK, the need for ethical behaviour is not taught; it is in our culture. Corporate citizenship is expected and, perhaps more importantly, it has become part of what it means to work for GSK. It is an in-built convention, a personal code of practice which sets trust and transparency at the heart of every action and activity.  I am now my own arbiter, where time after time I pause to reflect upon my planned commercial activities and those of people around me. This is not to ensure that my plans pass the rules of the industry, but more importantly to consider if my actions would be consistent with those of a trusted partner. This does not mean that we are not assertive or competitive as an organisation, but when I develop commercial strategies or tactics, they should always be fair and transparent. That is the way we should do business. It is this level of change which has already occurred in the industry that I believe we should now be celebrating and promoting.

So does this mean that the ABPI can disband? No. Does it mean that the ABPI Code should continue to be tightened? Yes, absolutely. However, we must show that we can outperform the Code today and not gradually with each new restriction. Whether this relates to promotional items, or payments to healthcare professionals for services such as advisory boards, consultancy or meetings, pharma companies are already realising that being trusted is integral to being successful in the long term. We should also show that companies that do exceed elements of the Code, as GSK does, whether in the UK or globally, should be held up as examples to show it is possible to direct an enterprise using a collective moral compass and succeed. 

Stop the stories of the bad days of pharmaceutical behaviour and let us demonstrate that we can be trusted partners who can improve health outcomes through science and innovation, based on the reinvestment of income from business operations, which function ethically and responsibly. After all, we work in the best industry in the world. So let's celebrate how far we have come.

Paul ReynoldsThe Author
Paul Reynolds
is the marketing director for Seretide, working in GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK) Respiratory Centre of Excellence, with responsibility for Seretide brand strategy across Europe, emerging markets, Japan and Asia Pacific. Previously, he worked for both Novartis and GSK at national, regional and global levels, spending time in internal audit, new product planning, sales and marketing across 11 years in the industry. He is married with two children and lives in Berkshire

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26th April 2011


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