Will pharma thrive on FMCG talent?

John Hosken


Skills requirements in the pharma industry never stand still for long, but the pressures of patent expiries and revenues from blockbusters starting to dry up means that things need to change now and change quickly.

Industry watchers have commented on the appearance of managers from the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, bringing a different range of marketing skills to pharma, and wonder if this is the beginning of a major shift. Even at the highest level, it seems commercial skills from outside the industry are being valued, such as the recent appointment of a new CEO at Novartis (Joe Jimenez) with only two years of “pharma” experience.

The people perhaps best placed to judge whether this is happening and what effect it will have are the recruiters and external consultants who see the ebb and flow of demand for talent across the industry.

Pharmaphorum spoke to three such external figures to find out what they think pharma is looking for now, and why…

What are the new commercial, analytical and relationship skill requirements and is pharma moving towards a more FMCG model, one of determining market need before driving product development?

Tarquin Bennett-Coles, Managing Director of RSA Interims, thinks that pharma is now looking for better rounded recruits who understand health economics, internal financial considerations and which ideas will quickly translate into revenue.

“Companies have to work with a smaller and more effective skeleton crew, so everyone has to chip in to assist the whole company. The days of surplus headcount are gone. Everyone needs to justify their position and the value they bring to an organisation, when previously they may have had room for some additional headcount.”

“There will always be room for specialist skills like regulatory affairs or pre-clinical R&amp,D, but people with the ideal profile will probably need to have other strengths outside of their key area. An international or global perspective and network is another core component of the new model.”

“An international or global perspective and network is another core component of the new model.”

Martin Anderson, Founding Director of Carrot Pharma Recruitment, thinks pharma needs flexibility in adopting new strategies to bring drugs to market quickly.

“The industry can no longer rely on traditional marketing methods and so we are seeing a shift to more FMCG experts coming into pharma and trying new approaches. Eventually we’re expecting digital to start to make an impact, alongside quirkier and more emotive campaigns and better patient engagement strategies.”

“Pharma companies are being more selective about which specialist marketing agencies they work with and seldom will have one agency do everything or even a few working on big elements of the marketing mix. Now they are working with more niche suppliers which means that the bigger, more established agencies have to react quickly and tweak their offerings to win business.”

Theodora Anastasi, consultant at The MSI Consultancy, sees a need for greater specialisation: “In order to survive the more consumer-driven model, pharma companies need to become more specialised – meaning diverse roles working as one, becoming experts in their particular field but inextricably linked, working towards a common specific goal.”

“By structuring in this fully integrated way, changes in the environment, external stakeholders, or internal processes – irrespective of how subtle or substantial –can be reacted to and understood quickly.”

“Deep understanding could mean pharma being able to not just determine but predict needs for the future healthcare market.”

Does pharma need new skills or can it meet these needs from existing resources?

TB-C: “‘It may need to look to other sectors for inspiration. Some of the senior roles may need outside expertise to offer a new perspective and change the direction of the business. Knowledge of the sector and experience should and will remain important, but a more open view on attracting talent might help the industry moving forward.”

MA: “The issues that will always remain are the restrictions and regulations which limit marketing options more than in FMCG, but this just needs smart thinking and the use of approaches seldom before applied to pharma, so I believe pharma needs more people from consumer and other sectors to help it evolve.”

“I think there are more consumer people coming in but maybe not as many as some people think. Some pharma companies are still not yet open to this and are sticking by their traditional principles.”

“Some of the senior roles may need outside expertise to offer a new perspective and change the direction of the business.”


Are we seeing a shift as a result of cost pressures that limit ‘push’ selling?

TB-C: “The consumer-driven model that demands value at every stage is partly down to increased cost containment, but it also seems that the speed of information gathering and free access to it has put pressure on the push model.”

MA: “I don’t think it’s solely the result of cost pressure, but more a result of pharma slowly realising that there are other ways to do things, and the limited number of novel molecules coming through, so the science differences aren’t enough anymore. Doctors are just people in the end, and if there are several drugs that are very similar, then marketing plays a key role in deciding which to use.”

“In certain therapy areas, patients have become very influential in terms of choice. Compliance remains a key challenge, so pharma has had to adopt a more consumer-driven approach because it needs to interact better with patients. At the same time pharma needs to be mindful of the boundaries of marketing to patients in the prescription-only market.”

“You can look at it another way: patients are becoming more influential because health care providers are given less choice to prescribe freely, due to cost constraints and so the treatments at their disposal tend to be similar in terms of efficacy. They will then leave it to the patient to think about which treatment fits best with their lifestyle. The Department of Health’s Risk Share Scheme for multiple sclerosis is a good example.”

TA: “Undoubtedly this has had a significant impact- the push selling model is far simpler to implement and without resistance, it is unlikely it would have changed significantly in the near future. Cost containment has made the model outdated very quickly, giving rise to a more sophisticated model requiring more refined skills sets. Once this is fully embraced and fully functional within organisations, it will reap rewards for both consumer and pharma industry- the old ‘push’ selling model will feel like it never belonged in this environment.”

Which therapy areas are most affected by the new model?

MA: “They’re all affected to some extent. The high-cost, high-science therapy areas, as well as the chronic or potentially more life threatening conditions, may be less affected because they lend themselves better to scientific – rather than emotive – marketing. Having said that though, look at all the patient lobbying on breast cancer drugs, especially Herceptin.”

TB-C: “Therapy areas that are easily understood and ones which have good public awareness will be most affected. Some complex ones – neurological disorders like Huntington’s Disease, say – will still need an information-rich, face-to-face ‘push’ sell.”

If the marketplace is changing, what new skill sets does pharma need?

TB-C: “Transparency and willingness to respond to new approaches and an increasingly savvy patient population, plus entrepreneurial adaptability – and a belief that the industry should be proud of what it tries to achieve – will be vital.”

MA, “I think the brains and talent exist in the market but sometimes expertise is just deployed in the wrong way, and the wrong strategy is sometimes applied.”

“The ability to look for new and innovative ways to market drugs is crucial if the industry is to continue to evolve. Apart from marketing skills, market access skills will become more and more sought after as cost pressures continue.”

What career development pathways will help people gain these skills?

TB-C: “In a global market place, those who have experience working or living in other markets and with networking and language skills will have a head start, especially if they have a background in customer-focused positions.”

MA: “Applicants will increasingly need broad sector experience and scientific knowledge, not just following the traditional sales and marketing route in the pharmaceutical industry, and they can gain this from working for companies such as P&amp,G and Unilever.”

So what is driving the skills change in pharma right now?

MA: “Because pipelines are thinner and healthcare budgets are tighter, pharma is much more challenging than it used to be, so new ways of bringing drugs to market need to be found.”

TB-C: “Pharma will need to learn some of the tactics and cost cutting measures employed in the low margin, high risk CRO market to get through this tough period. Companies will need to get the balance right and they will either need to up-skill existing staff or employ people – such as interims – with more commercial awareness.”

“Companies…need to up-skill existing staff or employ people with more commercial awareness”

“Many of our customers want to deal with a peer – which usually means another scientist or doctor – so a balance will need to be struck between commercially savvy teams and internal scientific/clinical expertise.”

So what can we learn from all these changes?

It seems that pharma is starting to embrace personnel from other industries in order to hear fresh approaches and expand its skill set. The tight regulations imposed on the industry do, of course, limit how far FMCG approaches can be utilised. However, there seems to be a recognition that FMCG experience can help to drive new commercial models and approaches, perhaps because this industry has already been through the pain pharma is experiencing with pricing restriction and shortage of differentiated new products.

One thing is abundantly clear for everyone working in the pharma industry – new approaches across both the R&amp,D and commercial side are required and sticking to old models just will not “cut it”. That means that everyone in the industry, whether they come from within, from FMCG or from other industries has to constantly keep learning new skills.

About the author:

John Hosken jhosken@hotmail.com has been writing and consulting for pharma, on and off, since 1997, when he was one of the industry’s first internet marketing specialists. He has researched and written widely on transformation communications, management development and sales and marketing.

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