Wisdom acquisition

Chris Stevenson

CSC Solutions

Advice is seldom welcome: and those who want it the most like it the least” – Lord Chesterfield, 18th Century.

As often happens in life, a few recent experiences brought into sharp relief a feeling I have had for some time about the way in which pharmaceutical companies approach their markets and customers. The feeling is that we know less about our customers and markets than at any time in the past. We have more information than ever before, and this has paradoxically driven us towards having less knowledge and wisdom to make the right decisions. Combined with increasing internal demands marketers today are struggling to understand their role and to deliver what their job title demands.


I know some of you will remark that I am generalising, and no doubt I am. Nevertheless, the truth of the examples below seems clear. I know there are now job titles such as Customer Relationship Manager, Opinion Leader Relationship Manager, Regional Marketing Manager, eCommunications Manager, Market Access Manager and many other variations on this theme. So you would think that there are lots of pharmaceutical company managers out in the market engaging with customers, understanding customers and listening to customers. I don’t see it happening, what I do see is these groups being charged with a responsibility to impart information to customers. NOT to listen, NOT to understand, but to TELL.


I recently emailed a senior marketing manager at a pharmaceutical company. I accept I was trying to get them to enter into a conversation and that ultimately I wanted to sell them something. However, the reply I received reminded me that people in marketing roles are often focused on issues other than their market. To paraphrase, I get too much email, I have too many internal priorities, I don’t need anything new, don’t contact me again. It is not the first time I have received such a message – perhaps I should revise the way I contact people! I’m sure I can improve my communication and I will try to do so. However, the general message is clear.


“…we know less about our customers and markets than at any time in the past.”

I spoke with another marketer recently about a project that required direct contact with some key doctors. I was asked if I could contact the doctors because the marketer had too many internal projects and they were judged by their adherence to internal deadlines not by their contact with their customers. An opportunity to talk with customers who wanted to discuss some important market issues was turned down in favour of internal priorities.

Another marketer recently mentioned to me that they are interested in what individual doctors say but they do so much market research through their agency that they listen to the agency more than to an individual doctor. I’m sure this makes sense in some quantitative sort of way, but what a missed opportunity. I was reminded of the axiom “People in marketing use market research like a drunken person uses a lamppost, more for support than for illumination”.

Forward to the past

The examples I mention above remind me that we live in an age of information. We get lots of it, it consumes our time, we want to give it to other people, we believe the acquisition of information is power, that it makes us successful and when we know a piece of information that others don’t know we feel superior.

However, information is not knowledge, nor is it wisdom, it is merely data. As T.S. Eliot said “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information”

There appears to be a crisis in marketing management where the focus is now significantly on internal priorities, information acquisition and not on understanding the market. I perceive,

• Too many internal distractions and drains on time

• Marketers judged by internal not external factors

o How many marketers have the objective that they will be on first name terms with the top 15-20 doctors in their market?

• Too much email traffic

• Fear of contact with customers, especially leading doctors, because it may change a point of view


“An opportunity to talk with customers who wanted to discuss some important market issues was turned down in favour of internal priorities.”

It is as if we don’t want the market to get in the way of marketing.

It’s a jungle out there

Markets do not conform to tidy models. You cannot understand a market from an office. Markets vary from place to place, they change over time and can change rapidly with new data, and are less predictable than we all like to think. I am not advocating that we stop market research, far from it. Market research has significant value, and modelling has its place too. However, a model of the market is a retrospective look and cannot describe the subtleties of variation we see in the real world. Beware if you are told the future is certain. Markets are messy, sometimes incoherent, unpredictable and for many marketers, scary. However, it is the role of the marketer to understand the market however scary and unpredictable it might be, so marketers need to get out into the market and ask questions and listen. Those that do will have wisdom and decision-making skills far beyond their peers.

Who wants to be a marketer?

From the description above it would seem that the role of the marketer is getting more difficult and that perhaps the increasing internal drains on marketers are the chief cause of the increasing difficulty. However, the role of the marketer remains one of the most crucial in any company and can be one of the most enjoyable, especially if the marketer wants to understand and impact the market.

When I worked at Johnson and Johnson my boss and I had a statement on our office walls “Love your customer – products come and go, customers are forever”. We were focused on the market and our customers. A few simple approaches will help marketers maintain their focus on their market,

• Set 2 days aside every month to visit customers. Send them two or three key questions in advance and give yourself the objective of talking for 20% of the time in the meeting. Take notes, share the experience back in the office.

• Set an objective that you will be on first name terms with 15 of the top 20 customers in your market within 12 months from now. Don’t rely on other people’s interpretation of what your key customers say.

• Profess that you do not know enough about your customers. Don’t mention the market research budget or how many reports you have.

• Use market research to help you ask the deeper questions. Do not use market research to support preconceived opinions. Always look for the wisdom within the information.


“…information is not knowledge, nor is it wisdom, it is merely data.”

• Be as knowledgeable about your customer’s questions and issues as you are about your products attributes. When you can write down the top five issues for a group of customers as quickly and as knowledgeably as you write down your product benefits you will know you have the right focus.

• Understand that markets change, and can change rapidly. Constantly engage with customers, ask questions and above all listen. You may anticipate a change that your competitors and market researchers have not. This could provide you with an advantage and there is no better feeling.

I may sound a little like the politician who extols a “Return to family values”. I don’t think so. I am not asking for a return to the “good old days”, because they didn’t exist. However, I am reminding us all that you can’t manage a market from an office, you can’t understand customers in detail if you don’t engage with them and listen, that models are not markets and that the way to competitive advantage is through a deeper understanding of your customer and their needs. It has always been so, and despite the mountain of information available to us, it remains so.

We need to reverse Eliot’s observation, we need to look for knowledge in information, and find wisdom within the knowledge. Asking questions and listening, whether in one-to-one meetings with opinion leaders, well managed advisory boards where doctors talk with doctors to discuss your questions or visits with patients and doctors to understand the dynamics and challenges they face, these are the best routes to knowledge and ultimately wisdom. With wisdom comes the ability to make decisions that are right, that are better than your competitors, which will increase your success in the market and create the indelible mark of a real marketer.

The next article from Chris Stevenson will be published 5th July

About the author:

Chris Stevenson is a managing partner at CSC Solutions, a strategic consultancy offering insight in marketing and communications to the pharmaceutical industry. CSC Solutions specialises in the design, moderation and execution of strategic marketing advisory boards, and CME strategic consulting.

E: contactcscsolutions@gmail.com

T: +44 (0) 1625 826906

Is there too much focus on internal priorities in pharma marketing?