Leadership: If Bill Gates Ran PhRMA

Pharma has a classic image problem. Sometimes the products don't do what they're supposed to. Innovation is key, but too slow. Business practices can look sleazy. What if our spokesman was a guy who'd beaten those problems?
Jan 01, 2007

Sander A. Flaum
It's almost too painful to talk about pharma's reputation these days, and, to be brutally honest, PhRMA, which ought to be serving as a powerful voice for what's right about the industry, has really fallen down on the job. Maybe it was a mistake to hand the reins to a Beltway insider. What pharma (and PhRMA) needs is someone who understands the dynamic that's driving the industry's relation with the public.

Here's the kind of person I'm thinking about: He's built a visionary company from a couple of kids in a garage into a formidable world giant. His products have set a standard for the world—though they frequently don't operate as advertised. He is a watchword for innovation—even though his own product pipeline has occasionally turned up dry. He courts trouble with the anti-trust police, at the same time as his charitable work throughout the world earns him respect as a truly public-minded exec. He is a real-world leader in a world-altering industry.

Imagine: Who on earth has a better idea of how to cope with our problems than—you guessed it—Bill Gates?

What would the software king be like as a pharma spokesman? Let's let this press conference from an alternate universe speak for itself.

SANDER FLAUM: After the Democratic Party sweep of the House and the election of Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, why did we see a $50 billion drop in drug industry stocks?

BILL GATES: The Democratic campaign and its leadership basically focused on pharma pricing, specifically the restoration of Fed-led price negotiations with Big Pharma on Part D formulary products. So it's no surprise to anyone that we saw a drop in market cap following the sweep. And by the way, quite a few Republicans have jumped on the anti-industry bandwagon, as well.

Your claim to fame is the creation of what has been called the most innovative and respected company this country has seen in 50 years, despite an array of brilliant competitors. How did Microsoft maintain its goodwill and leadership position, and how will you use that experience to help lead the pharmaceutical industry?

Thanks for the kind words about Microsoft. We had and still have a great team of leaders, who work everyday to bring added value in quality to our customers' needs. Additionally, we promote the heck out of our accomplishments globally and unceasingly give back to foster goodwill. That was always the Microsoft strategy and execution plan.

In regards to how that applies to the pharmaceutical industry, it's going to take a lot of work and smarts to get back to where this industry was in the nineties. First of all, we need to clearly discern why pharma has become so disliked and misunderstood—not only by Congress, but also by our past loyal constituents. We have to do a much better job of preempting the bad press, especially the front-page stories on every misunderstood practice, from off-label usage to doctors and nurses accepting informational lunches from reps. We need respectful rebuttal from an industry or company spokesperson to appear in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Our stoic silence on these troubling stories has proven to be a PR disaster for us. Have you seen a front-page story in the recent past lauding a new HIV drug or diabetes indication, or a story focused on the other scores of great discoveries this industry has come up with? I don't think so.

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