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The pharma dichotomy

By Chris Finch

Chris Finch

The last few years have been kind to the pharma industry. While other sectors were plunged into chaos, COVID-19 highlighted our industry’s remarkable capacity for innovation, with new vaccines and treatments being developed, tested and approved in record time. This brings the good our industry does sharply into focus, with 60% of the UK public saying their view of the pharma industry has improved, while a September 2021 Harris Poll gave a 56% approval rating in the US (an increase of 24% from pre-COVID-19 levels).

While it would be easy for pharma executives to feel a little smug, our success during the pandemic highlights a ‘pharma dichotomy’. Why, as an industry, are we incredibly innovative when developing new treatments, yet laggards when it comes to embracing digital technology in marketing and medical communications?

What stops pharma innovating?
Our reluctance to innovate is complex and deeply rooted in the culture of pharma. Undoubtedly, there’s the view that digital activities are riskier. And so, medical, legal and compliance teams can be quick to quash groundbreaking ideas. Additionally, pharma companies tend to have complex policies and processes designed for a bygone pre- digital era. If a new concept doesn’t fit with the status quo and ‘the way it’s done around here’, then adapting an existing process or developing a new one just seems too difficult.

I once asked a global brand director why she thought digital adoption was progressing so slowly in pharma and her answer was intriguing: ‘It’s because of FOBO (Fear Of Being Outdated).’ Many top executives in pharma rose through the ranks in an age when pharma was dominated by huge sales teams. An age when a sales aid, leavepiece, journal ad campaign and a couple of medical symposia a year were enough to drive huge growth. A world senior executives knew and understood well. One where they were the experts. The new, digitally dominated world brings a lot of unknowns, and what we don’t understand, we fear. That’s why when new, enthusiastic, Gen Z brand managers want to build a digital campaign, they may be faced with resistance from above. Senior management can feel exposed by their lack of knowledge and experience.

How do we overcome the challenges?
Steve Jobs created a culture of innovation at Apple (and Pixar) that changed the way we live. How can we apply Steve’s view of the world to drive innovation in pharma communications?

‘The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do’
How many brand plans start by changing the date on the previous years? Let’s start our planning by asking patients and healthcare professionals what their biggest problems are and challenging ourselves about how we will make their world better, by doing things differently.

‘Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations’
Pharma always wants to build complete, perfect solutions before bringing them to the market. In contrast, innovative businesses start small with new ideas, test the market with a minimum viable product and evolve as they gain insight from users and data collected.

‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do’
We can learn so much by looking at how other industries are using digital communications in their activities. Perhaps it’s time we started hiring more people from outside pharma (eg technology, telecoms, FMCG and automotive) who really ‘get’ innovative digital communications.

‘Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do’
How many projects are you currently working on? How many meetings are in your diary for the next week? How many features do you have planned for your next app/website? We have a habit of trying to do too much, overcomplicating tasks and spreading ourselves too thinly. In the end, it all limits what we can achieve and it stifles creativity. By zoning in on the few things that really matter, the true game changers, we can achieve so much more.

To truly embrace innovation across all aspects of our industry we must give our people the freedom to innovate. While cultural change takes time, if industry leaders are willing to be a little more ‘Steve Jobs’, not only will we improve patients’ lives through our science, but through our marketing and medical activities too.

Chris Finch is Managing Director at earthware

Chris Finch is Managing Director at earthware

30th June 2022

From: Marketing

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