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Are We Slaves to Predictability?


The status quo pharma marketing model is still relied upon by the big brands, not because the results are amazing, but because they are predictable. It's time to challenge convention, says James Talerico.

James Talerico

There it was: a New York Times alert on my iPhone, saying that President Trump eschewed Republican leadership to cut a deal with Democratic lawmakers on raising the debt ceiling (soon to be followed by DACA-and then healthcare!). Politics aside, it was yet another signal that what was once the status quo is now the status quo ante. It was a reminder-a healthy reminder-that “the way things are” does not describe a fixed position. “The way things are” is ever-changing.

This has never been more true for healthcare and healthcare marketing, where a system once rigged for the benefit of powerful and deep-pocketed brands is ripe for disruption.

When my fellow Heartbeat Managing Director, Nadine Leonard, started in pharma marketing (having previously worked with the likes of Delta, Citi, Kraft and more), she was amazed to find a commonly accepted formula to get to market: a measured, done-it-before-so-let’s-do-it-again checklist that chose predictability over ambition, even if the prediction was mediocrity.

Big brands like Lyrica, Symbicort, and Botox once dominated the airwaves and the industry through brute force. With the power to influence insurers, and the budgets to buy eyeballs, they succeeded in marketing their products by applying the three T’s: tried & true & trite.

Blunt force or not, the status quo pharma marketing model is still relied upon by the big brands. Not because the results are amazing, but because the results are predictable. Pharmaceutical corporations make big bets on brands, and often have shareholders to answer to. Knowing they will get results matters.

The thing is, the “primacy of predictability,” as much as any regulatory restriction, has led to bland, patronizing communications that fail to stir our emotions or affection: can you tell one sunset from another, one flirty 50-something from the next, one hand-held walk in the park from the last? If your TV were on mute, could you tell one brand from another?

Sure, each of us has been beaten into awareness by a major pharmaceutical brand using pure repetition. But turning the forgettable into the insidious with high-spend, high-frequency media is not the solution.

Why not? Well, there’s the media fragmentation point. That’s been discussed in these pages a couple hundred times. Or you could point to the diminishing attention span of the consumer population. Heard about that? You could even say that blockbuster drugs that can afford the brute-force model become rarer every day.

All of those things are true-but it’s not where my head goes. I’d say predictability is not the solution because forgettable is just forgettable, and insidious isn’t inspiring anything. I’d say boring doesn’t build relationships, and standard solutions do not delight anyone. I’d say we need to work harder, and that our audiences have come to expect it.

Like all those polls that once predicted the victories of milquetoast political players, the formulae that tell pharma that $X million in traditional spend equals Y lift in marketshare are based on old and broken models.

I’d say, it’s time to challenge convention.

The good thing is that our audiences are giving us more opportunities than ever before to win them over. From 16-year-olds to 65-year-olds, from urologists to gynecologists, they are digesting more media across more platforms (12 hours a day when accounting for multitasking1) than at any time in history; they show a higher willingness to talk about brands they know (in one survey, 77% of respondents said they’d be willing to leave a review if asked2); and their time in front of the television screen continues to shrink (cord-cutters are up 33% in the past year3).

It’s up to us-the outsiders to the old-school game, the challengers for whom “the system” holds no benefit-to seize upon these opportunities, and transform pharma marketing from predictable incrementalism to outsized opportunity.

We-call us Modern Marketers-do not accept the stereotypical game plans or the old excuses. We do believe in three things:

  • Going Deep – The insights that drive our work are unique and fertile. Confidence and efficacy, trust and safety are table stakes. Modern Marketers find what’s underneath, the emotions and values that drive our audiences and that nurture our creative communications.

  • Stirring it Up – The creative that we conjure provokes and delights, distinguishing our brands with unique, memorable voices, and experiences that inspire emotion and action. That doesn’t require a $50MM television campaign. It requires courage.

  • Making It Matter – Modern Marketers never take our audiences for granted. We embrace every interaction through ground-breaking digital tactics, and dynamic, targeted media plans. We re-think and redesign traditional tactics to maximize engagement. We know every touch counts.

There is so much ground yet to be explored. So many new ideas yet to be realized. And although it will indeed be less predictable, the future of pharmaceutical marketing could establish levels of effectiveness-and delight-never seen before.  

Imagine the day your Facebook friend trumpets the incredible experience they just had with a pharmaceutical brand the way they might talk about a tech brand today.

And although we can learn from other sectors that have made Modern Marketing work well, we know things always manifests differently in pharma.  So we have clues, starting points, and fodder, but we definitely don’t have a roadmap.

But some-hell, maybe all-of life’s richest rewards come from taking risk, embracing adventure, enjoying the path less traveled. So as pharma marketers we truly stand at a moment of opportunity. Now we just have to take advantage of it.

So let’s get to it.

James Talerico is the Managing Director & Executive Creative Director at Heartbeat.


  • eMarketer, September 2017.

  • Podium "State of Online Reviews" report, March 2017.

  • eMarketer, September 2017.


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