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Another inside peek into pharma marketing at PM Society learning event –

The PM Society’s ‘Is Pharma Marketing built on Straw, Sticks, or Bricks?’ interactive information afternoon, held at The Royal Society of Medicine in London late last year, set out to bring together pharma marketeers and get them working on strategy, leadership qualities, and self-betterment.

After a coffee break post a morning replete with thoughts of customer insights with Bruce Ritchie of The Green Room and Spoken Brand Narratives, and of customer engagement with Ben Head of Novartis, Scott Jardine of AstraZeneca and Stephanie Hall of Uptake Strategies then took to the stage to discuss ‘The Red Thread – a Learning and Development Interest Group’, providing an insight into the world of bringing needed medicines to the right patients.

The importance of the Red Thread

Jardine began by asserting the huge importance of strategic choices. Indeed, validating the reasoning behind AstraZeneca’s teaming up with Uptake Strategies, he said that to link all parts, a clear ‘Red Thread’ is required to win coveted investments and to get backing internally. Hall agreed with the importance of this across pharma and biotech, and across the UK and European pharma marketing.

If any in the audience were left bemused as to what precisely the ‘Red Thread’ was, Hall explained that it could be conceived of as multiple things besides keynote speaker and message strategist Tamsen Webster’s notion. Historically, the ‘Red Thread’ has been variously termed the golden thread, logic, even Ariadne’s thread, or the steel thread in software development. What they all are, are terminology for the same concept: a framework for a logical connection and environment, whether strategically or tactically.

It is that little voice in your head, Hall continued, that questions whether something works or is right. Listen to it, she urged; tap into it and think every now and then, pausing for a moment.

But why is it so important, you might well ask? Because, with no Red Thread, there is no organisational alignment – no vision, mission, values, nothing to connect these things, Hall said. Even with brand strategy alignment, across the external environment are customers, patients, objectives, all critical success factors, as well as tactical effectiveness methods aligning via the Red Thread, made up as it is of objectives and imperatives. Additionally, she said, there is measurement: the ability to ensure the right KPIs and metrics are set.

The strategical logic house

Nonetheless, Hall continued, there are different lenses by which to look at a strategy house of strategy logic, its overarching roof enclosing operational logic, numerical logic, and customer logic, and it is important to question whether that logic is indeed logical, and whether the maths is mathematical. Still with her?

Jardine asked whether there were any disconnects in this logic house she so described, to which Hall commented on the frequent chucking out of apps, with the belief simply being that ‘Digital will solve!’ However, she warned, oftentimes charismatic digital agencies don’t check whether the gap is in the right area of the logic house for that app to solve the problem it seeks and claims to.

A disconnected Red Thread, then, won’t drive the behaviour a company is seeking to drive. It would be, to put it one way, running around the hamster wheel without effect, customer engagement consultant Mike Orriss interjected, having opened the PM Society event during the morning. Indeed, a disconnected Red Thread lacks impact on tactics, lacks patient or customer centricity, and flattens or declines a pharma brand’s performance.

Mention was made of ‘the money question’, also, and how one knows whether the KPIs and metrics are the right KPIs and metrics, to which the reply was simply “To join the dots, you need to identify the dots.” Wise words indeed: threads and dots. Got it.

The keys to the brand plan

Afterwards, Orriss teamed up with Dave Allmond, a senior executive in Life Sciences, to discuss marketeers’ progression through the various roles in pharma marketing and how, with that progression, comes being handed responsibility, i.e., ‘being handed the keys to the brand plan’, as per the title of their talk.

Allmond began by describing it as being handed a blank sheet of paper and the responsibility to go and define the strategy for X. Unfortunately, he jested, they aren’t the keys to a Ferrari; Self-doubt arises: “Why am I here? Why should I know anything?”

Himself having travelled through various different positions, deeper and deeper into the pipeline over the years, it could be said that Allmond has gleaned some perspective. So it is that he can interview applicants for the role of senior marketeer and ask each candidate, “What is strategy?” – the collective audience mind at this point, of course, harked back to the previous presentation’s logic house. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, less than 50% have ever provided Allmond with a good answer. And that’s because strategy is difficult to define, he said. It comes down to resource allocation, essentially, to time and money and the fundamental question of “Where will you place our bets?” If that choice isn’t made, then there is no strategy. You can’t be all things to all people, he explained.

Marketing strategy is a process of defining which customers are being targeted and what they are being offered. The needs of the customer must be met, but the process, Allmond said, is not commonly understood. To elucidate, he differentiated between the ‘little m’ marketing of a brochure and Marketing ‘with a capital M’ – the leader of the brand. It is, in short, about behaviour and confidence as a leader to be in the capital M of the brand and bring the pieces of the puzzle together to satisfy the customer, he explained.

The confidence to lead

Asked by Orriss how one prepares to become such a leader as he had described, Allmond replied that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but also that getting involved, volunteering with global brand teams, and getting at the table with them goes a long way too. It’s about the pendulum, he said, the balance and equilibrium between partners and different functions to satisfy them globally. A leader is the interface and builder of relationships, who takes their view from their location into the global mix.

Additionally, Allmond urged proactively seeking mentors and coaches for the purposes of learning and developing, rather than just self-learning with texts in isolation. Invest in time in yourself ahead of time to get comfortable with the language, he suggested. And “surround yourself with fountains, not drains”.

Learning and development capability building

To close the day, Stephen Fensome from Novartis and Janice MacLennan of St Clair joined MSD UK’s Nyambe (Yam) Sumbwanyambe for the panel, ‘Pharma Marketing L&D Capability Building’, picking up where Allmond had left off, in terms of leadership development.

Sumbwanyambe began by explaining his role as a strategy officer and how the panel would concentrate on facilitating a conversation to encourage ‘selfishness of time for self’, rather than the needs of others – a converse way of thinking. This, he said, requires learning as development, providing the opportunity for self. What ensued was a discussion pocketed by audience participation in the form of feedback survey moments, utilising the QR code link-up style that had been sprinkled across these sorts of events in 2022.

Fensome delved into the theory that none of us has really been taught how to learn as an adult, that it’s all pedagogic post-university. Noting Malcolm Knowles’ “Theory of Andragogy” or adult learning principles, he explained that adult learning is problem-centred, prompted by facing something that needs to be fixed. On this interesting point, Sumbwanyambe asked MacLennan to take that theory and make it more real life for the audience. To this, MacLennan replied that, when we ask ourselves about a problem, we need context for the question. Similarly, if you ask what winning looks like, you have to ask what is going to get in the way of success.

Perhaps a little vague, but then Fensome admitted leadership is a rather nebulous term – what, after all, is being led? Soft skills and the architecture of those skills are necessary for progression, he said. And Sumbwanyambe agreed, reasserting that the panel was about self-efficacy, about building a culture and space to ameliorate this within the industry.

Elephant rope and thinking differently

MacLennan added that, for her, reading was a large part of her own progression: marking up stuff that makes her think differently, opening her mind, and making her look for further opportunities to explore that new learning; equally, observing and engaging with people, looking for different ways of thinking and not being fixed. Nevertheless, she admitted that people had different learning styles. Fensome, meanwhile, brought focus back to the need for global, for international aspects of different ways of thinking.

In addition to these points, MacLennan noted the importance of feedback, especially feedback grounded in behaviour change. In response to this, Fensome mentioned the Kirkpatrick model, the first stage being reaction, the second the learning, and the third stage the behaviour change, while the fourth is the result or targeted outcome, directed by the language common to the business in which someone works.

To conclude, he shared the story of the ‘elephant rope’, wherein there was a captive elephant once come across, which clearly could have broken away from its ‘bond’ at any point, but did not, and when the trainer was asked why, he explained that the elephant still believed that the rope that held it when young could do the same then, despite its increased size and strength. The moral? Don’t hang onto the belief that you can’t do something simply because you failed once before, Fensome summed up.

To close, Sumbwanyambe explained that this new PM Society event had hoped to present itself as a comma in pharma marketing exploration and advancement, not a full stop.

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