Pharma still sucks at digital: A manifesto

In the movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise’s character has a crisis of conscience. One evening during a league meeting crafts a manifesto of sorts about how sports agents, colleagues, and competitors, could all do a better job serving the best interests of their clients. In the fever pitch of finishing this document, he distributes copies to every single person at the meeting and is greeted with uproarious applauses of approval by his fellow agents.

A week later Jerry had lost all but one of his clients, and his career was in ruins.

Hopefully this won’t be my Jerry Maguire moment, but much like Tom Cruise’s character, the manifesto that follows is probably long overdue because it’s 2014 and pharma still stinks at digital marketing.

Having been in the industry for 18+ years now, I continue to observe the same recurring challenges that plague the business and severely impact the quality of the work. These challenges typically take the following forms.

On the agency side:

Work is often done in silos: With little to no collaboration between agency teams the end result is almost always very transactional programs. Media, web, mobile, social, PR, etc., are more often than not being managed by different agencies with little or no incentive to cooperate and collaborate

Ideas are transactional: Isolated thinking more often than not translates into an extremely low value ideas with little to no enduring value or utility.

Agencies are built to sell: They approach work as a zero sum game. Less for you is more for me. Instead of focusing on brand growth, they are incentivized to try and take revenue from other agency partners.

Teams are highly suspicious of one another: Internal or external, the territorial behaviors associated with the previously mentioned challenges kill the scale of a program, as working with another group or agency puts your own revenue at risk.

It’s incredibly easy to focus on the agency side of things, but all is not rosy on the client side of things either. Agencies are, for the most part, a reflection of the clients that manage them, and their behavior is a result of the leaders who manage them.

Some challenges on the client side include:

High turnover rates = short term management: Most clients don’t stay in their roles longer than 18-24 months, so programs aren’t designed, built, or managed for mid-long term success.

An over-emphasis on innovation: The hunt for ‘the next big thing’ is a constant churn, and comically ineffective. Pharma clients typically define innovation as “new” instead of “better.” Any innovative program by that definition typically can’t build the kind of meaningful scale needed to be effective in the short term, as the audiences and utilization need to be grown. That lack of immediate scale leads to, you guessed it, the eventual hunt for the next ‘next big thing.’

Clients are built to buy: Given the relative lack of marketing experience most pharma clients have when they enter their marketing roles, the focus is almost entirely on generating tactics. This leads to an“ I’ll know it when I see it” culture that constantly churns through vendors and pitches with the end result being little to no cohesion in a marketing plan.

“Vendor” mindset: The end result of all of this is a disposable attitude towards a client’s agency partners. Any effort to provide strategic council is often rebuffed, and if a client is counseled that an “exciting “ idea may not fit with the overall brand strategy, the consequence for the agency is to be told “if you won’t build this for me, I’ll get someone who will.”

“Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch”

Eric Drucker nailed the essence of the problem with this quote. Research from Booz and Company found that 84% of executive believe culture is critical to their business success, and 60% of executives believe culture is more important than strategy or their operating model. Clearly culture has a huge impact on business today.

If we are going to change the outputs of digital marketing in the pharma industry, the change needs to be applied to the culture around how we do business, not simply changing whom we do business with. It’s a key distinction, and one that is almost entirely ignored.

The reality of the agency-client game is, for the most part, clients are buying talent, not agency processes, as all agency processes are essentially the same. That’s why for instance, an account person can go from one agency to another and get up to speed almost immediately. Certainly some agencies are better than others at executing their own processes, but it’s the talent that generally wins the day. Clients may view this talent through the lens of the tactic or program they intend to buy, but the success of those ideas is a direct result of the people hired to work on the business.

So if talent is the key to success, why are we as an industry, so comfortable fostering cultural dynamics that minimize the contributions that talent can offer? It would stand to reason that if we created healthier cultures for talent and ideas to thrive, the entire industry (and more importantly, it’s customers) would benefit. Let’s examine what I believe are the main cultural roadblocks in effect in pharma today.

Four Cultural Realities Holding Back The Industry

The following observations are a small list of some of the cultural hindrances that I’ve encountered in my 18+ years of marketing, and are the ones I believe are the most fixable. If someone is a jerk, they’re a jerk, but more common, people often undermine their own potential (and that of their teams) without realizing it.

1. Pharma Has a Trust Problem

You can spot a bad relationship from a mile away, and pharma’s customers have noticed. In a 2014 Harris poll, customer perception of the pharma industry ranked near the bottom of all industries surveyed. Don’t worry, pharma beat out Big Tobacco and Big Oil beat (but not by much). The mistrust within and around the industry is palpable. There are other forces working to drive this perception, but I believe the quality and transparency of our external communications is a major contributor to the current negative perceptions.

Think about the typical customer experience of engaging a pharma brand beginning with a Google search. websites look terrible, don’t integrate into any other marketing program that may be available, and have the feel of an over-stylized (poorly designed) brochure. Magnify that by the fact that the industry is almost completely silent on social channels, and we give our customers a palpable big-brother impression.

What does this experience have to do with trust you ask? Lets go back to the culture inside the industry. Marketing and PR are in a turf war to control social. Agencies are pitted against each other to bring ideas and not encouraged to ladder up to a greater whole, and clients utilize pitches to get ideas for free. Is it any wonder the end user experience sucks.

2. Customer-Centricity Is a Myth

If you really look at the way brands are structured to operate, the framework isn’t about customer centricity, but client-centricity. A typical digital marketing plan will have a website, media, social, mobile, and experimental components. Too often, the work on these programs happens in silos. The agency managing the website may or may not ever talk to the agency managing the media, or the agency managing social, etc. The divide gets even greater when you factor in the turf war that happens between PR and marketing, and clients are typically more territorial about this split than the agencies are. Clients are looking for that one signature program to get them promoted, and agencies are constantly trying to eat each others lunch, which further exacerbates the problem. I’ve seen too many brands that operate programs and disciplines in vacuums, and it really needs to stop.

Customer centricity actually looks at the needs and behaviors a particular audience engages in and inserts branded information in a thoughtful and utilitarian manner (and divides the work amongst the agencies accordingly). Client centricity manages programs from a process-management viewpoint, and the end-customer is often left with a fragmented and disjointed experience. If we as an industry truly care about putting the customer centricity then we should actually put the customer’s needs before our own.

3. Belief In The Fallacy of Competition

If I had a nickel for every time I heard a brand say that, “if I don’t make my agencies pitch for the business, how will I know I’m getting their best work?” When I hear that, I think two things. First, the person uttering such ideas must not know what good work looks like, and second, that same person illogically believes the pitch team is going to continue working on their brand once awarded the work.

While a healthy amount of competition is good, especially when no client-agency relationships currently exist, overdoing it can actually work against a brand. Think about it a bit and it makes sense. When teams trust each other, they can take risks, push boundaries, and rely on one another for accountability. If you truly want a team to bring innovative thinking to the table, the last thing you want to do is punish them every time there’s a bump in the road. Doing that will only get you safe and predictable thinking, since that will be the only way an agency can survive long term. Additionally, the constant pitting of one agency against another only serves to amplify the bad cultural dynamics already described.

4. The Economics Are Actually Disincentives

When forced to constantly compete for dollars, collaboration is usually the first behavior to disappear. Why would any agency, constantly in jeopardy of losing their business, do anything even remotely close to sharing ideas with a competitor? Worse, why would an agency use a service or group outside of their own staff (which might actually make the work better) when they are forced to operate in an environment of fear?

True story. I once had a client ask my team for new ideas to help spur brand performance for the back half of the year. We spent weeks pulling together a robust, insight driven brand plan and presented those ideas during a crisp, engaging hour-long presentation. The client was thrilled and lauded us with nothing but praise. A week or so later, I inquired about the status of the programs and if senior management had signed off. The response from the client was surprising. “Senior management loved the plan, so I gave it to another agency to execute because I like them better.

Did this person ever think ideas of any value were going to be produced for that brand again? This may sound like an extreme example, but I’ve talked to numerous colleagues who have similar stories. A client only has to do that once to turn their agency relationships into Lord of the Flies.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you prefer) there’s nowhere to go but up. The industry has spent a fair bit of time discussing what its role should be as a change agent for marketing. To create transformative marketing, it’s high time to transform the culture of marketing organizations. If there is a prioritization for being a change agent, this is it. Here are just some of the transformations that need to take place:

Being (an actual) agent of change

Think about your own day-to-day culture. Do any of the above cultural traits seem familiar? They’ve become so commonplace that we almost don’t even notice them anymore, but it’s high time we do.

4 Suggestions for Creating Collaborative Teams

If we’re going to be committed to creating a more collaborative working culture, having a place to start is helpful. As I’ve given this presentation it’s been the most asked question from audiences, so I’ll try an encapsulate some of the best ideas that have come from those talks.

1. Yes, and…

Walt Disney had a rule with his creative teams. When brainstorming ideas, no one in the room was allowed to say “no”. Instead, he encouraged people to build off one another’s ideas by incorporating a “yes, and” culture. I’ve been in far too many agency collaboration meetings, where the simple goal was to make the other groups look inferior. The positive value of a ‘yes, and’ culture is that it not only builds cooperation and collaboration naturally, but you may be surprised what kinds of ideas come out of the process.

For digital, this is a necessity. The best digital programs require many partners and teams working together to build and promote something of any lasting value, everyone needs to build off one another to be successful. If you are a client-side marketer reading this, you have the absolutely essential role of fostering these behaviors and letting your agency partners know that undermining each other will not be tolerated.

2. Partnerships, not providers

After the intense (and often expensive and time-consuming) process of pitching and being pitched, agency-client relationships should grow more trusting, not less. A story I often cite to illustrate point is one that many of my colleagues often echo as a truism during the brand planning process. Clients have often said something to the effect of, “I don’t want to tell you my budget because I don’t want to constrain your thinking.”

I asked a former client of mine (who said this to me once) why she thought that way and her answer surprised me. She believed if she told the agency her budget, they’d only bring her the ideas they could make the most money off of. I responded. “How do you know they didn’t do that anyway?” Look, agencies are a for-profit business and that’s not going to change. It’s perfectly understandable to be frugal with marketing dollars, but constraining the flow of information actually can hinder creative thinking. Be open with your agency partners and they will feel safe in doing the same, and it will save everyone enormous amounts of time. Good and trustworthy marketers will try and find mays to maximize you budget, not take advantage of it.

In the technology sector, some of the best products come from a co-creation process where multiple stakeholders and skill sets work together to produce a great product. The more variables and unknowns that can are able eliminated (including budget restraints), the higher the likelihood of finding the best solution possible. Work together, work in teams and encourage everyone to have ownership and transparency in the process. The results will be far more effective.

3. Leading instead of managing

It’s become commonplace in pharma for some of the must inexperienced people on the client-side marketing team to be tasked with managing the digital aspects of a brand. I won’t get into the specifics of why that might be in this post, but the reality of it has caused digital agencies to be managed more than lead by their clients, or worse, clients are being lead by their agencies since they simply lack the expertise to know how to lead even the most common programs. Given that relative lack of experience by digital marketers, the goal becomes managing to the end game of launching rather than driving the creation of more systemic and durable ideas.

If a marketer doesn’t know what they want, or have a vision for their brand, how can they possibly expect the end result to be anything other than fractured or transactional in nature?

This type of management style creates and culture constant stream of new ideas is prized more highly than he creation of sustainable digital engagements, typically resulting in a midst of “If my agency isn’t constantly bringing me new ideas, how will I know I’m getting their best thinking?” This slippery slope only incentivizes the agencies working on any given brand to compete for dollars by pitching projects that they can own and control, further limiting the potential impact for a customer.

If you are a client-side marketer, you absolutely need to have a leadership role in shaping and defining the digital objectives and strategy for your brand. That may sound like a no-brainer comment, but that role is very often ceded to the agencies. To enable a culture of collaboration, you need to understand the roles you want your agency partners to play and clearly define and enforce those boundaries.

4. Always remember your customer

WWMCD. What Would My Customer Do? That’s what you should ask yourself each and every meeting. Look at your objectives. Examine your marketing goals. Are they what you want? Are your customers needs taken into account? Wanting an industry-leading responsive design is a nice goal, but probably means absolutely nothing to the people who use your products. Being the first to launch an app means zip to a user if there’s no value-proposition to the features of the app. We all need to balance our career goals with that of our users, but we should all strive to work a bit harder to tip the balance in the favor of them rather than us.

In Conclusion

The behaviors that drive the current cultural behaviors have been grooved into our habits and interactions with others for years, and shifting them won’t be easy. I had a client call me about a week after I first presented this idea to her to lament how hard it was getting her partners and internal folks to work as a team. While the challenge seemed daunting, she was determined to make it happen. I’ve seen the tangible results from afar to testify that it can make a huge difference in the work, and the relationships all the players have with one another.

All of what we do in marketing, all of it, is a kind of game. We can choose to change the rules of any time we want with just a simple choice. We can choose to continue to be ruled by fear and money and power and competition and mistrust, or we can choose to work together for the betterment of the lives of our customers. To me the choice seems easy. So I ask you, dear reader, are you willing to give it a try?

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