The ills inflicted by poor strategy

If brand managers adopt a policy of ‘doing no harm’, as doctors do, then strategies will be taken seriously and the outcomes will be the best possible, for the brand and the wider community.

I am a strong believer that economic efficiency, social progress and corporate performance go hand-in-hand. As a strategist, I have a fundamental desire to help my clients invest wisely – not just because that is what will deliver the best outcomes for their businesses, but also because, generally speaking, that is what will deliver the greatest good for the greatest number. Too utilitarian for someone who works in a creative agency? Perhaps. Too altruistic for a marketer? Arguably. But having spent my formative years in clinical practice, my default end goal – no matter the protagonist – is to improve outcomes:

‘With regard to healing the sick, I will devise and order for them the best diet, according to my judgment and means; and I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.’

– Excerpt from ‘The Hippocratic Oath’

In medicine, patients generally take a doctor’s advice. The consequences of not doing so are (or become) too obvious, too painful, or too inconvenient to ignore. But in the commercial world, if the ‘pill’ is too bitter to swallow (i.e. is too expensive, too hard, or not the ‘quick fix’ that the brand team was after), it’s all too easy to ignore the remedy. When the consequences of ignoring good advice don’t inflict ill on you personally, it’s harder to recognise those ills for what they are and too easy to turn a blind eye if you do recognise them.

“A sickening amount of waste is commissioned by brand managers who choose to ignore the need for, do not recognise, or poorly implement, good advice”

The result? A sickening amount of waste is commissioned by brand managers who choose to ignore the need for, do not recognise, or poorly implement, good advice (i.e. strategy). This waste is manifold: time, money, intellectual capital and materials.

As a case in point, I recently worked on an account with a brand manager who had no time or inclination for strategy. Poorly-conceived tactics were demanded in the rush to meet a ridiculously tight timeline, simply for the sake of generating tangible evidence of completed work (rather than high-quality, strategy-led outputs). The bigger picture – in this case, the impact of this brand’s activities on the greater franchise – was ignored.

When this brand manager moved to another portfolio and the new brand manager conducted an audit of what had been done to date, the flaws were readily apparent.

We were soon instructed to destroy more than 40,000 pieces of printed material. Much of this material was being stored in our office. The waste was plain for us – but unfortunately not the client – to see: hundreds of man hours, goodness knows how many trees, and tens of thousands of dollars that could have been far better spent elsewhere. It was infuriating, and probably one of the worst examples I have come across in my career of the (entirely preventable) cost of little or no strategy at the hands of poorly educated, badly managed and barely accountable brand teams.

Sounds harsh? It’s no harsher than the sound of 40,000 pieces of paper going through a shredding machine. But it’s certainly harsher than that pill the brand team was advised to swallow to begin with – which demonstrates the importance of taking your medicine before it’s too late.

So, here’s the rub. As a pharmaceutical brand manager, you are not immune to causing harm. Your actions and decisions are, in some cases, as important or significant as those made by your customers at the bedside. You, too, have a duty of care to others and to the broader community. So next time you pay for some strategic advice, choose to invest in it like your life depends on it and make an oath to ‘first, do no harm’.

About the author:

Dr Candice O’Sullivan is director and head of strategy at Wellmark, a creative agency with specialist expertise in healthcare communications and pharmaceutical marketing. Formerly a medical practitioner, Candice began her agency career as a technical writer developing medical communications for healthcare professionals and patients. She has since spent the better part of a decade developing and implementing marketing communications and brand strategy for some of Australia’s leading corporations and local affiliates of global pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Gilead, Celgene, Ipsen and CSL.

Her current focus is on the delivery of high-level strategic insights that lead to the development of truly effective communications that support and advance her clients’ strategic objectives and brands. She often works with brands from the time of launch, developing brand and communications strategy and planning tactical programs (and their creative execution) across the entire product lifecycle.

For more information, please visit You can follow her @candicepill and @wellmark_health.

Have your say: How do you ensure brand managers have a ‘do no harm’ outlook?

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