Your Most Precious Asset - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Your Most Precious Asset

Pharmaceutical Executive


Michael R. Perry
When the hub of your industry is located 700 miles away, in a place so foreign they don't understand the joys of deep-dish pizza or Old Style beer, recruiting top pharma advertising talent can be tough. And losing talent is costly. You have to learn to keep staff happy and motivated, ensure continuity when turnover does happen, and bring in new people through great incentives, management support, and word of mouth.

In the past 12 years, the Chicago-based pharma advertising firm AbelsonTaylor has quintupled in size, making our ability to recruit and retain a key competency. When our peers first voted us Most Creative Agency 14 years ago, we had 21 creative people on staff. Today, 15 of those people are still on staff, including 11 creative directors or associate creative directors; four are partners. Our people have grown with us; they share our culture and values and pass them on to clients and peers. They demonstrate the benefits that come from reducing turnover and building morale.

Below are some tips and tricks we've learned along the way for maintaining a happy, productive staff. They are, by and large, translatable to the rest of the US, recognizing that the East Coast can't rely on the beauty of Lake Michigan's coastline, the proximity of celebrities like Oprah and Jerry Springer, or the strength of character that dealing with O'Hare International Airport on a weekly basis engenders.

1. Share Good and Bad News Quickly

A good agency doesn't treat its people like mushrooms—which can grow, even without tending, in dark, damp places. People need attention, input, direction, and responsibility, so we make sure our senior team knows what's going on and we empower them to let the rest of the organization know, too.

Whenever we get a new account or win an important award, we broadcast the good news, so people know they're part of a great team. Likewise, if something goes wrong we let people know quickly, along with what steps we're taking to improve the situation so they can get on with the job at hand. Our senior level managers also hold regular meetings to formulate policy and discuss staffing, new business, and other agency-wide issues. They then share these policies with their staffs, who are expected to "live it out" in their management.

2. Create Learning Opportunities

People want meaningful responsibilities, challenges, and opportunities to learn so they can reach the next level in their careers. To help them, AbelsonTaylor offers a full curriculum for account management, with regular "lunch-n-learn" programs on subjects such as Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications review; a day in the life of a rep; a day in the life of a product manager; interpreting clinical data; and the like. The smarter you can make your staff, the happier both they and your clients will be. Because the more they know, the better equipped they'll be to pass on knowledge to the next generation of managers.

3. Add Fertilizer

Most people want the opportunity to grow and expand their horizons. For those who want to stretch beyond their job description, we encourage attendance at outside seminars or even courses outside their functional area. This helps staff members explore interests that enrich their jobs and/or lead to other positions in the agency they can contribute to. For those who want more, we offer partial tuition reimbursement for MBA's.

4. Train Like Hospitals

Like hospitals, which train their staffs through a "watch one, do one, teach one" process, our staff watches a procedure, performs the procedure, and is then expected to teach the procedure to others. This concept promotes mentoring that develops our staff's skills as they progress through each level. As a person is promoted, he or she is given someone to train or manage at the level below. Account coordinators train traffic coordinators, account execs train assistant account execs, and so on. This process also allows us to spot talent and provide help if any problems arise.

5. Establish Outside Relationships to Enhance Staff Knowledge

Working with outside institutions can be a win-win situation. For example, in order to keep our in-house staff of PharmD's available to consult with our account and creative staffs, we have established a program with the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy that allows the university's PharmD candidates to fulfill one of their six outside clerkship requirements at the agency. This program gives us valuable staffing resources and a source of knowledgeable new employees, some of whom come to work for us after graduation.

6. Build Flexibility into Your Organization

At a time when technology provides greater mobility than ever before, we are flexible about alternative work schedules and accommodate individual preferences and family needs as an important aspect of keeping personnel happy and involved. It also means that the agency keeps staff members who are important to business relationships or creative initiatives.

7. Shop at Home First

While going outside for new talent is often necessary, wherever possible we promote from within, benefiting from our investments in management and training. This ensures that the agency's culture, operations knowledge, and values are kept within our organization, and minimizes recruitment costs due to staff losses.

According to the US Department of Labor, workers change jobs an average of 10 times between the ages of 18 and 38. We strive to provide a place where ambitious people can grow, and mark out the paths available for promotion. In addition, when a person wants to go in a different direction (for example, from a junior account service role to a junior creative role), we do our best to find a spot that fits his or her career objective, allowing change in jobs to occur all within our own agency.

8. Be Aware of the Needs and Potential of Your Staff

To keep staff motivated, you need to know what they need and want. By holding focus groups with small groups of employees, we let our staff tell us how they feel and what they need to do their jobs better. We find out what's most meaningful to them in their jobs so we can motivate them. Do they want more recognition or time from their bosses? The opportunity to work in another therapeutic area? More challenge in their work? More flex time? We do our best to accommodate them whenever possible.

Finally, to make sure our managers are doing their jobs, we double check our own assessments through an outside firm that conducts 360-degree interviews among the subordinates, peers, and supervisors of every director and above. This allows us to spot problems early and fix them before they begin to cause bigger problems.

9. Work to Live, Not the Converse

Obviously, there are times when people need to work late, but making it a regular habit—or encouraging people to work until midnight as a "badge of honor"—is likely to result in burnout, as well as dampening creativity. A vital life outside the office recharges the batteries and makes for a happier staff that creates better and fresher work. Times with friends, music, books, movies, plays, and TV can all inspire ideas, so encourage people to get out and have fun. We try to make sure we have a staffing plan in all of our departments that allows most people, most of the time, to leave at a reasonable hour and not have to work weekends. Of course, during a launch or other crunch time, that doesn't happen. But in our agency, those situations are exceptions.

10. Break Silos and Have Fun

It's important to encourage people to share thoughts, ideas and experiences, so they can learn from each other and pass knowledge on to others. Every year we schedule brand update presentations, where account supervisors make 20-minute presentations to vice president–account directors about what their brands are facing and how their teams are dealing with it. We also have an annual brand fair that allows account and creative teams to display the work they're doing. Both of these activities give mid-level and junior staff exposure to their peers and senior staff, and allow for cross-fertilization of ideas.

Your staff works hard, give them time for fun. Every week we provide "Free Lunch Friday," which brings people together to talk, laugh, be with friends, and meet new ones. The nominal fee we charge is donated to a charity, which brings me to my final thought...

11. Practice Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate social responsibility programs are becoming vital aspects of corporate culture. We've actively solicited causes, including health organizations and charities, to which we contribute creativity, skills, and even cash donations. From collecting warm coats to knitting hats, gloves, and scarves to creating ads and promotional materials for health associations, we have a range of offerings that allow everyone to participate in activities that interest them and make them proud of our organization and its generosity.

As Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, now professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said, "Your most precious possession is not your financial assets. [It] is the people you have working there, what they carry around in their heads, and their ability to work together."

As your most valuable commodity, your people are what build your name and reputation and what make a great agency. Treat them as your most precious asset and they'll continue to pay dividends for years to come.

Michael R. Perry is vice president, account director for AbelsonTaylor. He can be reached at

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