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Through the looking glass

Mike Lane, MD of Lane, Earl & Cox, reflects on 40 years in pharma and how the industry has shifted

Mike Lane, Earl & CoxIt all started in 1969, after seeing Bob Dylan at the Isle of Wight Festival. I had been turned down for a job in market research at Hoechst Pharmaceuticals and was on holiday, readying myself to start at Philips as a work study executive. Then, out of the blue, a telegram arrived stating that Hoechst wanted me after all and were offering £50 a year more than Philips. Wow, I was in the big time if I accepted, and £950 per annum seemed pretty good. All the advice I had received said the pharmaceutical industry was the safest one to be in; no one was ever made redundant and it was, potentially, a job for life.

So, off I set for a career in an industry I knew very little about. When I arrived, I was taken into the market research library – a huge room with shelves containing massive black and blue volumes that I used extensively for the next two years. The British Pharmaceutical Index (BPI), Medical Data Index (MDI), Rep Index and Medical Promotion Index (MPI) became my constant companions. Anything the product managers wanted to know about the market was contained in those pages. The problem was that producing a report required exhaustive calculations to work out trends. Today we have Excel to performs these calculations in microseconds, but doing it the hard way gave me better insight into what I was working out.

Another of my duties was to keep our competitive file of mailings up to date with the huge parcels of the literature many GPs would receive and send in.

After two years of advising marketing people on what they should do with their brands, I was bored and wanted to become a product manager myself. "No problem," they said. "But first you need to learn the business of selling." So I became a representative. On completion of the training course, I was given a territory stretching across Surrey and Sussex, down to the coast. I set out eagerly, and on my first day was told to f*** off by a doctor in Woking who I had waited half an hour to see. During another call a few weeks later, I sat next to a patient who was incessantly sneezing. I asked what the problem was and she told me it was caused by hay fever. Innocently, I mentioned the brand I was intending to promote to the doctor. About a minute after she had gone in for the consultation, the GP rushed out and asked whether I was the rep who told his patient about the antihistamine. Later, I was reprimanded by the sales manager following a complaint by the doctor. However, in conversation, he said that I had now "made it", as he judged reps by the number of complaints he received from the medical profession.

New terrain
My results must have been good because I was transferred to the Birmingham patch and was soon notching up record numbers of hospital calls. A few weeks after starting, a competitor told me about a local café where reps met and I went there. "How are you getting on?" I was asked. "Great," I said. "I'm amazed at the difference in hospital calls between the South and Birmingham – here it's so easy." There was deathly silence. "Mike, you can't go strolling round hospitals, as reps are banned," someone said. The previous rep who had held my position had not put anything in the records to suggest this scenario, and so I continued until one day I made the mistake of booking an appointment with the chief pharmacist in one hospital. I happily told him he should expect a demand for the products that I had been detailing, based on the calls that I had made. He proceeded to read me the riot act. Apparently, it was this gentleman who had introduced the ban round all of his hospitals; a ban I had to comply with from that point on.

I got engaged during this assignment and so desperately wanted to return to London. A few months later, I was back at head office as a marketing executive and, after working on an antidiabetic range, was promoted to product manager, then senior product manager. But I was never going to make it to marketing manager at Hoechst, so when I was offered a job at Astra, I jumped at the opportunity. I credit Astra with teaching me what marketing is all about.

I had been recruited to help launch an antidepressant – Zelmid – but the product licence had been delayed. As a result, I turned my attentions to the respiratory range. It seemed like a good idea to try and build up an image for the division and so we created the Astra CNS/respiratory division with a distinctive logo. I don't think we had such things as global corporate design guidelines; we just got on with what we thought was right.

My job involved meeting customers, overseeing the phase 4 trials, training and managing the product managers and meetings managers, as well as supervising the medical information service. I suppose nowadays the role would be called business unit manager. It taught me about the interaction between different disciplines and how each role is vital to the ultimate success of a product.

Zelmid started showing signs of progress. I met up with many of the psychiatrists I had befriended at Hoechst and they were thrilled that the product was on its way. They told me that it was superior to the one I had worked on previously, which I found interesting, as I had believed everything we claimed about Merital (the Hoechst antidepressant).

New direction
Before I arrived at Astra, they had appointed an advertising agency in Toronto to handle the product. The agency went bankrupt, but I decided to give the UK representative a chance. However, when I met some of the new employees, one of them handed me a document that turned out to be the marketing plan of our leading competitor. If he could be so indiscreet with them, what was to stop him doing the same with our company in the future? I fired the agency immediately, which gave me the opportunity to renew my relationship with Publitek, the company I'd worked with at Hoechst. The team developed a memorable campaign and my love of electronics and gadgets stimulated development of a Zelmid Activity Profiler (ZAP) in collaboration with Professor Ian Hindmarch. The ZAP allowed reps to demonstrate critical fusion and reaction time tests to doctors, and Zelmid was a major success. Unfortunately, a side effect – the Guillain Barre syndrome – meant the product was withdrawn. I had to make several people redundant and then, when I was called up to the marketing director's office, I knew I was the next to go.

It was a life-changing time for me. I kept myself busy with freelance work until, one day, I received a call from Tony Bird, the MD of General Advertising, asking whether I fancied taking on a new business role at his agency. I took him up on the offer and followed up one of the contacts I'd made after Astra. Eli Lilly were in the early stages of planning for Prozac and invited me to speak to them about marketing 5-HT reuptake inhibitors. I figured they would need an advertising agency, and so started a long relationship with the product. We made it through phase 1 of the pitch, a strategic plan, closely followed by the creative presentation and then, as the agency was enjoying Christmas lunch at an Italian Restaurant in Weybridge, Lilly's marketing director gave us the best ever Christmas present; the fluoxetine account.

The way forward was not smooth, however. Prozac failed to get a product licence and it was a long time before it finally launched. Meanwhile, I had recruited a new account handler. David Earl had been responsible for the Triludan account at his previous agency and only a year before I had been invited to submit an article to Campaign on my favourite advertisement. The one I had chosen was Triludan. I knew we had found a perfect match. That was 25 yaers ago and David and I have worked together ever since.

When Lilly did not get a product licence for Prozac, several of their staff left and David and I ended up with a far better knowledge of the product than anyone else at Lilly.

How times have changed
Technology has made a vast difference to how agencies handle products. When I first joined GA in 1983, we employed secretaries to type out what the copywriter had hand-written. Imagine having to retype the whole piece each time a client made changes. First, word processors revolutionised the process and then, of course, the PC. In the 1980s, we were still presenting hand-drawn visuals, had a giant Grant camera in the studio to produce photo-mechanical transfers (PMTs), and the artwork was produced in outside studios and came into the agency on boards with overlays onto which the art director would use magic markers to identify the colours.

International advertising was a much slower process. We would produce visuals and separate copy, courier them to the clients and, if we were lucky, get feedback a week to ten days later. With the advent of the internet, emails, PDFs and Apple Macs, the process is compressed into minutes and hours rather than days and weeks. Feedback is received very quickly and changes need to be made almost instantly. While this is not a bad thing, it certainly puts far more pressure on clients and agencies alike, which has led to the whole business being far more serious and business-like than it was when I started.

 Eventually, we were given the go-ahead to develop Prozac's pre-launch campaign and, of course, the launch. The real job was to keep the reps and psychiatrists warm without mentioning the product. We developed a programme of meetings and newsletters that we called Computer News Services (CNS), which profited by virtue of doctors' awakening interest in computers. Boy, were we impressed by the power and graphics of those BBC micros, and so were the doctors! Lilly's involvement in psychiatry became well-publicised and their reps built up relationships with doctors which, of course, they profited from when Prozac finally launched.

While busy trying to create a pharmaceutical icon, one of David's old colleagues at Beecham contacted him, and this led to us winning a basket of products from an international division in what was to become SmithKline Beecham. The case was there to start an international agency, and we took on a brilliant creative director – Phil Cox. So started a very successful partnership that was to last the next 18 years.

After a disagreement with the chairman, I left GA International. Not surprisingly, a new agency started in April 1993 – the names on the door, Lane, Earl & Cox. Within a matter of weeks more of our colleagues from GA International joined us and the rest, as they say, is history.

Soon after starting, we were invited to pitch for the Department of Health's TravelSafe campaign and beat some of London's top consumer agencies to win the account. We ended the year on a high note with numerous accounts, including Losec, for which we created the iconic 'Everyday People' campaign.

In 2008 we celebrated our 15th year in business. During these 15 years, we created Athena Medical PR and two other companies, as well as joining Omnicom, the world's largest communications company.

What have I learned during my 40-year career? Firstly, be true to your ideals, have a roadmap and do your best to follow it. Secondly, be a team player, not a maverick. People will trust you more and respect from your colleagues will follow. Thirdly, don't be afraid of hiring people who could at some stage rival you. I have often seen managers hire poor candidates because they were worried about competition.

And finally, enjoy yourselves.

26th January 2009


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