The Navigator: Charlotte Sibley - Pharmaceutical Executive


The Navigator: Charlotte Sibley

Pharmaceutical Executive

At this point, Sibley understood what a pharma company needed to succeed, and she had learned a bit about how pharma market research had always been done. But what she hadn't learned was how to truly get inside a consumer's head. That was a lesson she received at her next job, with tea-and-prepared-food giant Lipton, in an industry where companies live and die by their knowledge of customers.

Sibley arrived at Lipton in 1978 as a market research manager for new-product introductions. She found herself immersed in the world of consumers. There she studied the habits of women who hiked, raised children, and were relieved when they could get dinner on the table by just adding boiling water. It was a different world than Sibley knew, who was a single New York city girl with a taste for opera, but an important early lesson in understanding the representative consumer.

Sibley's boss, Vivian Bruno, was a stickler who didn't cut corners for anyone. "The product had to meet certain criteria set by market research, and if it didn't, it was back to the drawing board," says Sibley. "There was no slippery slope."

Sibley wanted to bring that type of research-based decision making to pharma. "I knew from Lipton that marketing research could play a more definitive role," she says. "We should be the voice of the customer, the objective voice."

The Consumer Touch

Sibley got her chance in 1987, joining Bristol-Myers Squibb as director of business research and information in the global strategy group. (She would later move to oversee the larger domestic group.) Bristol-Myers had just merged with Squibb, and the atmosphere was solemn inside the company. People were protective of their jobs and scared to stick their necks out.

But Sibley stood in sharp contrast to the company around her. She was full of new ideas and looking for more, says Colin Maitland, whose agency Isis Research counted BMS as a long-time client. "It was exciting—and exciting was the right word. There was a readiness to look at any idea we put up, instead of the 'not done here,' which is what we were used to."

Sibley got the whole team moving forward and looking outward—all the way to the patient level. That was new. Most companies at the time focused on key opinion leaders (KOLs), who in many cases didn't even accurately represent average physicians. "It was like the pharmaceutical field of dreams," says Sibley. "Make it and they will come." Direct-to-consumer advertising had not yet arrived, and managed care was still in the midst of its rise to importance, but Sibley was already arguing that pharma needed to pay attention to all of its stakeholders.

"Charlotte always thought of patients as the ultimate consumers of drugs," says Cliff Kalb, now head of the consultancy C. Kalb & Associates. "She was ahead of the curve—it wasn't until DTC that the industry caught up with Charlotte."

Sibley championed some of the first efforts to find out what patients want. For instance, the virology group at BMS was about to move forward with a shingles drug. The head of the division had sought advice on formulation from several of his KOL physician friends, who said a spray would be best—that way, they reasoned, patients wouldn't have to touch the suppurating lesions characteristic of the disease. But Sibley's group insisted on conducting focus groups and invited the R&D execs to listen.


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