Social pharma faces: Len Starnes

Rebecca Aris interviews Len Starnes

Digital healthcare consultant

Len Starnes has worked in the digital space for 17 years and has been involved in successful digital projects since the dawn of digital. A well-known face in pharma social media and a speaker at the upcoming Digipharm Europe 2011 event, Len is the latest of our social pharma faces.

Len discusses with us the recent tweets sent out by Bayer that saw them in trouble with the PMCPA. He also highlights the changes he has noted in pharma as digital has evolved and he flags the over-emphasis of digital as a major challenge to pharma. Is there too much emphasis placed on digital when really we should be focussing on larger issues facing pharma?

To listen to the interview, please click on the play button below, with a shortened transcript of some edited highlights shown in print below.

Interview Summary

RA: Hello Len, thanks for joining me. I’d like to ask you to tell me about your background, current role and what the future holds for you?

LS: I’ve been in the social media space / digital space for 17 years. I was in Schering AG in 1994, when I first really discovered the Internet. I had various roles within Schering AG. I drove a lot of their first websites, developed their global digital strategy, and had a number of roles up until four years ago when Bayer took over Schering. I was then offered the position of head of digital for Bayer’s largest business unit, which was called general medicine, and that’s where I was up until May this year. In the last four months I’ve become a digital healthcare consultant and I’m working with a variety of clients, both within the industry and on the vendors side, and trying to guide pharmas on the best way to use digital and social media, and helping vendors to understand what pharma really needs. I also have some options in teaching and lecturing that I’m pursuing.

“…it’s decentralised the way that information is shared and the way we collaborate with it.”

RA: How do you define social media?

LS: There’s a huge amount published on what social media is. One academic debate is about whether it’s a platform or a channel. I tend to call it a platform, a channel implies that things are just one way. A platform enables users to engage with one another, collaborate and share. Clay Shirky, one of the leading pundits of social media, talks about it being enabling and empowering, and that’s really what it is. It enables people to decentralise power. Just think about the riots recently in London, we’re getting most of that feed from people with their own cameras and smart phones, it’s decentralised the way that information is shared and the way we collaborate with it.

RA: What do you see as the biggest current challenges for digital communications in pharma?

LS: You have to put digital into context. If you look at the issues that confront pharma right now, digital is not really one of them. One of the biggest issues is the decline in productivity in R&amp,D. Big pharma is no longer capable of coming up with great ideas, these are more likely to be generated in small biotech start-ups. The days of the blockbuster are behind us. Reputation issues, regulatory issues, and the patent cliff are very, very large issues for the pharma industry as a whole.

Digital is not in the same order of magnitude as those issues that pharma confronts on the R&amp,D front. European companies are still spending no more than 3–7%, in the US that might be up to 10%, still relatively small. Digital has to be looked at in the context of other things too. If you go to conferences one has the impression that the whole of pharma is talking about social media and you come away perhaps with a false impression.

You have to be realistic about where digital is, it’s important, and it’s becoming more important, but it’s not going through a phase where everything will change radically.

“…if the right model is followed I think pharma can be successful but it takes a great deal of effort and a lot of convincing people internally to do it.”

RA: What trends have you noted in regards to the use of healthcare social media by different groups?

In the last 2–3 years we’ve seen an explosion in pharmas experimenting with social media. One of the issues that we confront within pharma is understanding what we’re doing and the real value that a lot of these initiatives are delivering.

We’ll find more and more pharmas experimenting with social media, but as ever the problems are about culture. Think about what social media represents, it’s free, open and non-regulated. These are diametric opposites of the things that pharma represents, and that represents a major cultural issue for the industry. As long as there are no specific guidelines for the industry, that makes things even more complicated. Where there’s a regulatory vacuum pharma tends not to tread.

RA: What changes have you observed structurally within pharma in response to the emergence of digital?

LS: The internal organisation of digital has gone through many phases. In the mid-late 90s, we saw a lot of major pharmas setting up huge centralised groups. Then we had a phase of decentralisation, then we returned to centralisation. Today it depends on your pharma, its culture, its structure, and what it feels most comfortable doing.

What’s most effective is a small centralised group to look after things like infrastructure, contact management systems, hosting and domain name governance. But generally digital people have got to be close to the business, to the brand teams, and the business units. Large centralised groups tend to be too far away from the business to be really effective. But it depends on your company, no one model fits all pharmas.

“…we learnt very quickly that what patients really wanted were unstructured communities with which they could talk to one another and talk to us in any way that they wanted about any topic that they wanted.”

RA: What online healthcare strategies and campaigns have you noted that have been, in your opinion, a success?

LS: I would like to think I’ve been involved in a number of successful digital campaigns. The one I’m most proud of was a website and community that I launched in ’97. Schering launched a drug for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, and we launched a website called the MS Gateway, a non-branded website. Shortly after its launch we discovered that multiple sclerosis patients really did like to talk to one another, and we launched a community. It was originally an open, very structured community, but we learnt very quickly that what patients really wanted were unstructured communities with which they could talk to one another and talk to us in any way that they wanted about any topic that they wanted.

This initiative is still going today, we have 20 global communities in Asia, Latin America and in Europe. It’s been very successful and it’s done the things that everyone now acknowledges to be the right thing to do in terms of connecting with the community, not dictating, being too wary, being open, not being brand centric, and I’m still very proud of the fact that we made the right decisions way back in ’96 / ’97 to do that and that the model has been a success up until this day. It’s underlined all the things that I read about today around what pharma should be doing in the social media space. If the right model is followed I think pharma can be successful but it takes a great deal of effort and a lot of convincing people internally to do it.

RA: How do you think pharma will adapt now that facebook has disabled the ability to turn off external comments and sharing on company pages?

LS: Most will take their pages offline. For one simple reason, if they keep them online they will be entering this regulatory no-man’s land, and I don’t think pharma will want to do that. If they keep them online it would require an awful lot of internal effort, organisation, and monitoring. Taking their facebook pages offline is the easiest option, and a lot of people say they shouldn’t be doing that, but I think many pharma companies don’t have an option.

“It’s quite clear if you’re using a Twitter channel you should not refer to brands…”

RA: We recently saw Bayer in trouble with the PMCPA over Twitter activity that was seen as promotional, what do you think it and other pharma companies learned from this?

LS: I would attribute that to the fact that the people responsible probably did not have a set of internal social media guidelines. I can’t comment on whether there were guidelines in place, but had there been I’m sure there would have been a reference to the way Twitter should be used. It’s quite clear if you’re using a Twitter channel that you should not refer to brands, certainly not in Europe. Twitter is a global channel but if it’s driven from a European subsidiary then clearly there should not be reference to a brand or a link to a brand. It was a silly mistake and shouldn’t have happened.

RA: Len, thanks very much for your time.

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About the interviewee:

Len Starnes is a digital healthcare consultant with over 17 years experience of directing digital strategies within the pharmaceutical industry, positions held include Head of Digital Marketing &amp, Sales for Bayer Healthcare Pharma and Head of European e-Business for Schering AG. His geographical areas of responsibility have embraced the European, North American, Asia Pacific and Latin American regions.

Len’s most recent areas of focus include the impact of physicians’ social networks on pharma marketing, the implications of collaborative healthcare on drug discovery, and nascent digital opportunities in emerging markets.

Prior to joining the pharmaceutical industry Len was located in Paris where he headed corporate communications for the Raychem Corporation, responsible for the energy, process and electronics sectors. He has also held executive positions with the public affairs department of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry – and in another life, has a long track record as a London-based publisher, writer and journalist specializing in science, technology and energy issues. Len speaks regularly at digital conferences in the US, Europe and the Asia Pacific region.

Is there too much emphasis on digital as an issue in pharma?