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Pharma Perspectives with the HCC: Malik Akhtar on the pitching process

Bayer's category lead for agency services gives a pharma view

Pharma Perspectives with the Health Communications' Council (HCC) is a regular feature from PME and PMLiVE where senior figures from industry and agency discuss a critical topic impacting the healthcare marketing and communications field.

In this article, Malik Akhtar, category lead for agency services at Bayer Healthcare, shares his thoughts on the pitching process.

For an agency view read Ben Davies, European CEO of Havas Health, answer the same questions.

Q: How well does the pitching process work for pharma?

Malik Akhtar: Sometimes really well, sometimes really badly. At the root of a good pitch process is a robust brief and a deep understanding on what our agency support requirements are.

There are some agencies that will continually miss the mark and not answer the brief. But more often than not they're having to guess and fill in gaps in a poor pitch brief document that comes from the client.

Q: What does it get right?

MA: Whether agencies like us or loathe us, the rigor and structures procurement have added to the process means it forces all the people in the room to think about the assessment criteria and whether this is a group of people they can work with in the future.

There is always a place for emotions, because you will see eyes light up and you will encounter people that you genuinely feel comfortable working with because you see how talented they are. But there is a place for objectivity, as well.

Q: What problems does the process cause for the industry?

MA: We certainly pitch too much. I support both the consumer and the pharma divisions within Bayer and I see very different behaviour - the average tenure of an agency within the consumer division can be a decade or more, and in pharma we struggle to hang on to an agency for 18 months.

The average time that brand managers hold their post is partly to blame for the level of agency turnover, but we have to accept responsibility as part of the procurement function and ensure we drive more continuity of support, because in some cases the agency has worked on the business longer than the brand team.

Q: What is the ideal number of agencies to call to pitch?

MA: No more than four - if one of those is the incumbent. If the incumbent is not being involved in the process, then three would be the ideal number.

The incumbent should only be involved in the process if they stand a realistic, albeit slim, chance of retaining the business. If, as is often the case, they stand no chance then they should be put out of their misery and not invited.

Q: How involved is procurement in the pitching process?

MA: At the moment it varies. We would love to be involved more, because we certainly think that we can offer added-value, particularly by actually stopping people from pitching.

But procurement doesn't always get invited and there are cases where we're seen as more of an administrative function. Sometimes you're carried to a situation where the brand team want to pitch to get some new ideas and that's normally supported by a very weak and very vague brief, and often no budget. If we're aware of that we intervene and we try and stop that behaviour altogether.

The ideal situation would be for us to be involved in performance management processes with the incumbent agency and helping brand managers develop first their lists of agencies and then their selection criteria.

Q: What can agencies do to meet procurement's needs?

MA: Looking at us - marketing and procurement - as one group and not separate clients would really help.

Agencies should also ask more questions about the process. You would be surprised how many agencies don't ask for basic information - so they can't respond to the brief accurately because they don't know what the evaluation criteria are, how many other people are going to be involved in the process or what their odds of winning are. It never hurts to ask. 

Q: Is pitching the best way for pharma to choose a long-term agency partner?

MA: Well, there are a number of different approaches other than run long competitive pitches. You can do a kind of workshop environment pitch. You can go even back to your incumbent agency and ask for fresh creative thinking and innovation as often as you like - that's part of the reason that we're using a third-party supplier to augment our own resource, because they're providing a service that we can't find internally.

But the way in which you do that does not have to involve an expensive pitch.

The Health Communications' Council (HCC) is a specialist division of the European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA). For more information visit:

If you have a topic you'd like the quarterly series to explore please send it to 

Article by
Malik Akhtar

Malik is category lead for agency services at Bayer Healthcare

His global remit covers the agency requirements for Bayer Healthcare’s diverse businesses in pharma, consumer, animal health and medical care. Prior to joining Bayer in 2013, he held a number of roles within procurement at GlaxoSmithKline.

14th August 2014

From: Marketing



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