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Brenda Snow talks to Pharm Exec about the creation of Snow Companies, the first full-service agency to bring strategic, regulatory-compliant, real-life patient stories to direct-to-patient initiatives.
It was the early 1990s when the successful, single mom first started feeling ill.
At first, doctors continuously told Brenda Snow she was just stressed, and that it was all psychological. After all, she was living in northern California in the midst of the first tech boom-constant headaches and other symptoms she was having could be easily brushed off to a work-hard, on-the-go lifestyle that was typical of a professional businessperson.
But, she knew it was more than just stress.
“Over the course of 1993, I went from being a perfectly healthy 29-year-old woman to not being able to see for a period of time, having blurred vision, no control over my bladder or bowels, and pronounced left-side weakness,” recalls Snow.
This was not just work-related stress-it was the onset of multiple sclerosis, and the research into the disease at the time was in its infancy.
It was also, the beginning of a path that would lead to the creation of Snow Companies, the first full-service agency to bring strategic, regulatory-compliant, real-life patient stories to direct-to-patient initiatives.
To understand Snow Companies, which was acquired by Omnicom Health Group, in 2018, and what drives the passion and commitment behind every decision they make, and project they work on, one must first get to the founder and CEO.
At the time, diagnosing MS was not like it is today. Although still difficult to pinpoint at times, there are many more advancements that have been made, and general awareness of the disease is much more wide-spread. That was not the case in the early 1990s, and Snow learned that first hand.
“After the [third] doctor, I started to question myself,” she told Pharm Exec. “I thought, ‘maybe something has gone wrong with me.’ I lost my job, because I couldn’t work, I was broke, I couldn’t do anything for [my daughter] … it was a very, very dark time in my life.”
Thanks to the support and encouragement of her family, Snow ended up at a fourth new doctor in late December of 1993.
“During the clinical examination, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Ms. Snow, you’re not crazy. You don’t just have migraines, you are very sick, and I am almost positive that it is MS,’” recalls Snow, adding that additional tests confirmed what the doctor suspected. “On one hand, it was the best news I ever had, because I finally had an answer and I am a solutions-oriented person. On the other hand, it was like the rug was pulled out from under me and I thought, ‘oh my God, I am never going to walk again.’ It’s that runaway freight train feeling of, I cannot believe this is happening.
“[Now] I like to say I talk to more patients on the planet than anyone else and no matter what the diagnosis, it doesn’t matter if it’s cancer or epilepsy, everyone has had that moment of ‘why me?’ I tell people, ‘why not you?’ this stuff is going to happen to all of us. It’s your approach and mental fortitude that will see you through it.”
Snow’s diagnosis led to a month-long hospital stay and then a stint at a long-term care facility where she was by far the youngest person being treated.
“I didn’t have Christmas at home, I celebrated New Years in the hospital,” she says. “I found myself turning 30 [in a care facility]. No one there had MS, or was under 75. Many had end-stage Alzheimer’s. It was a very humbling experience.”
Throughout her hospital and long-term care facility stay, Snow’s top-notch business instincts never wavered. She would make observations, and mental notes, not just about her own needs and what would make her experience better, but also what was happening around her-the process of obtaining information about medications, how they were dispensed and packaged, and the interaction between doctors, nurses, and their patients.
“I just kept thinking about my background in public speaking and marketing, and all of the things that were in my wheelhouse,” says Snow. “It was just a seed and wasn’t a business plan but when I look back, it was the genesis of, ‘isn’t there any more information for me?’ I would have given anything to connect with another woman who had MS at that point. I just kept thinking, ‘surely there has to be more.’”
But, at that time, there wasn’t.
In mid-1994, Snow’s doctor had what would turned out to be life-changing and career-changing news not just for Snow, but the future of patient engagement. She was one of the lottery winners who were able to get the first biologic treatment approved for relapsing MS, which included the patient having to inject themselves with the drug. For someone with MS who has dexterity and vision issues, this presents a potential challenge.
Within the first six months of taking the medication, every time Snow went to the refrigerator to take out the drug, she had the same reoccurring thought about how the situation could be more patient-friendly, and tailored to someone dealing with the issues of an MS patient.
“I thought to myself, ‘this is a novel therapeutic in an orphan state and they are not concerned with packing,’” she says. “That was my lightbulb moment. Did they ever talk to a person with MS about the packing, how the drug was delivered, the small print?”
That’s when Snow had her father drive her across the Golden Gate Bridge and, without an appointment, knocked on the door of the pharmaceutical company’s office who made the therapy and told their security guard:
“Hello, I am Brenda Snow and I have MS. I take your product and I want to talk to the people who work on this.”
Looking back, an outsider might say this was what would become her future company’s first new business pitch. But, for Snow at the time, it was just a way to answer the nagging intuition that kept telling her she could, and must, help others.
That day, Snow ended up meeting with a team that listened carefully to her story. It was the first time those people working on the therapy-from the R&D team to the marketing and branding team-had ever met an MS patient.
“It is so very fresh for me even today,” Says Snow. “The amount of people who flocked up to me to touch me, and would say, ‘I’ve been working on this molecule for the last decade and to see it working and to meet you … they were crying just as much as me. That was the beginning of what I call my consultant years.
“I was lucky enough, too, that they wanted to hear what I had to say. I went on to put together the first patient advisory board. It was 15 patients. It helped provide key insights for the company as they moved forward. There was real human connection, and an opportunity to engage for the first time.”
Fast forward about 20 years, and Snow is the founder and CEO of Snow Companies, and a pioneer of the patient advocate movement. Together with her business partner, Corbin Wood, who joined in 2006 and contributed critical industry expertise, business acumen, and innovative strategies, she has built an international company that does business in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Latin America. Apart from the proprietary Patient Ambassador® model, Snow Companies is also well-known for its award-winning video work, health education, learning, and patient services (HELPS), advocacy and patient insights, collateral design, and patient and healthcare professional event management.
Snow Companies has worked with thousands of “ambassadors,” and Snow herself continues to make a mark on how pharmaceutical companies engage patients.
As the regulatory, social, and pharmaceutical landscapes change, so does Snow Companies. Even in markets where she was told companies wouldn’t be able to use or find patient ambassadors, Snow has persevered, and has developed programs specific to each client, therapy, and brand. It’s not an easy task, but there is no challenge Snow doesn’t push through.
“It’s about thinking outside box,” she says. “Having 70 different clients and representing about 150 different brands, out of that mix no two are alike. While all of them have a human voice and human story, the strategy is different and customized.”
Part of Snow’s success is directly related to her leadership style of surrounding herself with the right people.
“I am the type of leader who wants people around me that are a lot better at certain things than me,” she says. “I know my skills set, and am very self-aware about where my personal challenges are.
“I lead by inspiration and example. We employ people who have chronic illnesses. We put our money where our mouth is. I have an open-door policy.”
That policy helps Snow stay connected with employees and truly listen to what they have to say about what they are seeing, experiencing, and observing. This includes openly listening to new ideas, challenges, and issues, because that is what will grow the company and keep it relevant well into the future.
“Some great ideas have spawned from our leadership meeting,” she says, adding how listening to your employees is very important. “I don’t have all the ideas anymore, and that is okay.”
Snow has had a front-row view of how patient engagement has changed over the past several decades, and has tips for working through those hard times.
“It’s really important to get key stakeholders involved in the day-to-day decision-making,” she explains.
Being a pioneer in this area, Snow has spent a lot of time with the pharmaceutical C-suite, educating them on why they should invest in this type of patient engagement and how it would be beneficial for everyone in the company-from sales and R&D employees to the potential patient who is deciding whether or not to use their treatment. After all, the concept was so new that there was no previous data to put behind what she was saying.
As the successes started rolling in, you would think Snow’s job would have become easier. In some cases, it did, because now there is hard evidence and data, which is important in a scientific, result-based industry such as pharmaceuticals and healthcare. In other cases, the questions from skeptics were, and are, still there.
But more and more companies have become open to this type of program. In fact, Snow says she has seen companies switch focus on how they allocate their budgets and really put dollars behind working with patients to develop programs and services that directly impact the patient and patient families. They are starting to move beyond just the development of a specific treatment, and are looking at the outside factors that can help make a therapy succeed or fail.
Speaking of family, that is exactly where Snow gets her inspiration. From the time she was experiencing unexplainable symptoms through diagnosis and treatment and then building a business, they were there.
“My daughter would come and visit me after kindergarten and sit by my bedside and ask me if I was going to die,” recalls Snow of her time in the long-term care facility when she was first diagnosed with MS. “She was very smart and eloquent at five years old and pointed out that I had to keep fighting. That was my reason to keep going. Two years ago, she gave me a granddaughter. It’s a great blessing to see that the future is going to be in capable and compassionate hands.”