It’s all about access, stupid

Chris Stevenson

Many of us will remember the mantra from Presidential candidate Bill Clinton some years ago when asked what the issues facing the American people were. “It’s the economy, stupid” was his reply, linking the performance of the US economy clearly and simply to the success of the American family. His simple approach struck a chord with the American people, and recently resonated for me during a meeting at a major pharmaceutical company, and the implications are significant and profound.

Product launch

At a recent meeting at a major global pharmaceutical company to discuss the launch of a new product across Europe I asked the question many of us would have asked, “What are the major communication issues you face?”

At any point in the last 20 years or so the answer would likely be related to key messages, differentiation, share of voice, visual imagery or strap lines and advertising. However, the marketing manager said none of these. “Access” was his answer. Access to key prescribers, access to budget holders, access to formulary teams, and access to other influencers were the issues he needed to address that would make the difference between success and failure. He went on to state that he wasn’t concerned about advertising, lots of agencies can do that, or symposia, lots of agencies can do those, or sales materials or PR, or publications as they were already in hand. However, if someone could give him an advantage in access, and can develop the right materials to impact on key people once access has been secured he would employ them and pay them well in an instant. But no organisation was coming to him with access and appropriate communication solutions, they all wanted to talk about generic medical communications, advertising or PR.


“It wasn’t too long ago that you could win a pitch with great visuals, good scientific knowledge or with a good generic comms plan…”

 Can you do it?

I can hear readers at some organisations saying “We can offer him those things, we have those solutions”. Perhaps some of you do. But I doubt if many have the combination of knowledge and databases required to offer the modern solution to the marketing manager.

Getting to the bar

The conversation with the marketing manager reminded me that things are changing rapidly within the medical communications field. It wasn’t too long ago that you could win a pitch with great visuals, good scientific knowledge or with a good generic comms plan that targeted the right congress or, dare I say, with charm and charisma. I’m sure these qualities still count and may still win business. However, the bar is being raised. No longer is scientific knowledge or therapy area experience enough. You need to demonstrate that you can not only develop relevant and interesting scientific content and materials, but that you can also get the content and materials in front of the right audience. And of course, that changes the game.

The audience is not all doctors, it may include other influential people that affect the adoption of a drug. It’s a fragmented audience that changes rapidly and has different needs for different types of data. It’s a tricky audience to track and understand.

Whose job is it anyway?

Why don’t the pharmaceutical companies develop their own lists of these increasingly important people? Why should they ask agencies to develop this knowledge and skill?

Of course, some drug companies already have their own lists and specialists teams that target different influencer groups. That’s been going on for some time and will no doubt continue to develop.


“…it is reasonable for a client to ask that you inform them of how impactful a programme was, as opposed to how pretty or how well laid out it was.”

However, don’t forget that if you are on the service side of the industry you should look at this issue as an opportunity to develop a new service, a new revenue stream and an opportunity, however short lived, to create differentiation. Shouldn’t you want to be able to pitch that you understand AND KNOW the different stakeholders, you understand how to develop information for them AND you know them AND can access them AND you can demonstrate that the information has impact. Imagine how powerful that pitch would be.

Who moved my goalposts?

Did I just mention that you should demonstrate that your work has impact? Yes I did.

It is no longer acceptable to merely do market research on visuals, count heads at symposia or look at readership figures. You need to demonstrate that you provided information that changed thinking, supported decision making and made a difference.

You may think this is not possible, or it’s unreasonable, but it is neither. It certainly is possible to assess the impact of content, and it is reasonable for a client to ask that you inform them of how impactful a programme was, as opposed to how pretty or how well laid out it was.

It just got more interesting

For the medical communications industry that traditionally takes a brief, develops something and then hands it over to the client and walks away or gets on with the next thing this is a significant change. The challenge is now to develop the right materials, ensure they get to the right audience and measure the impact they have and then use this information to adapt the strategy and plan and apply this feedback loop throughout a communications programme. This requires additional skills and there may be some organisations that can not accept the challenge. For those that can the rewards are large. Integrated programmes that access the audience and provide outcomes information will be of high value to the pharmaceutical customer, and may be in short supply. For the medical communications industry there is the excitement of learning how their programmes impact an audience, how to develop more impactful information and, as never before, proof that what they create actually does make a difference. Things are getting more interesting and more rewarding.


“The medical communications industry will need to acquire new skills in database management, outcomes and research.”


Half of what we do

I’m sure some people still quote the now outdated Typhoo Tea executive who said “Half of what we spend on advertising is wasted, we just don’t know which half” as a justification for investing in communications programmes that have no outcomes measurement and merely a belief that at least 50% of it is doing some good.

Today we do have the means to measure the impact of medical communications. Indeed, the fragmentation of the audience helps with this process. Who pays for the measurement is a topic for debate and some executives in the medical communications industry will probably refuse to measure anything unless someone pays them to do it. However, times are changing and those organisations that measure impact and design programmes with feedback loops will demonstrate greater value and, as a result, will find the revenue to pay for the measurement.

It isn’t too great a leap to envision a time when a medical communications company presents a programme that not only presents the information correctly, but also accesses the right audiences in different ways and guarantees outcomes in terms of people impacted, decisions made, information acquired and positioning created.

The medical communications industry will need to acquire new skills in database management, outcomes and research. However, for those that do, and especially for those that do it early, the rewards are likely to be large. After all, it’s all about access, stupid.

About the author:

Chris Stevenson has worked in the pharmaceutical, marketing services and medical education sectors in the UK, mainland Europe and the USA. He can be contacted at

How do you measure the impact of your communications programmes?