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Lessons Learned from the Multichannel Shakeout


Pharmaceutical Executive

Innovation by itself won't solve the complex multichannel challenges pharmas face.

There's upheaval in the pharma commercial landscape. 

For about a year and a half, we've been hearing a common theme from US and global multichannel marketing teams: They're being dissolved, reborn, expanded, merged, and transformed. Of 18 pharma multichannel teams we spoke with for our recent Structuring for Success study (Manhattan Research, 2017), seven of these teams were unstable – reorganized or dismantled within the past 2 years. Even among stable teams, several had survived "close calls" or absorbed recent staff cuts.

Behind this upheaval, we see a multitude of causes: 

  • Customers' accelerating adoption of digital channels, from social to mobile and now, to voice 

  • A marked improvement in digital experiences outside pharma, raising the bar for all industries

  • Increasing margin pressures as the industry enters a new era of value-based pricing

It's no surprise pharmas are looking for help structuring their multichannel and customer engagement teams. For commercial leaders managing these challenges, the paths to "success" are not always intuitive. For example:

"Innovation" by itself won't solve the complex multichannel challenges pharmas face.

In fact, being perceived as innovative could be counterproductive to multichannel success. Stable multichannel teams we studied were associated with operational expertise. Notably, we found several stable teams were led by individuals with field or operations experience. 

One stable respondent explained: "I was in the field as a rep district manager. So with the heads of marketing, if you’re getting them what they need in a language they understand, then they get what you’re doing for them.”

This operational mindset contrasts with a "shiny new thing" mentality that colored interviews with unstable respondents. The multichannel groups that had struggled tended to focus on corporate initiatives lacking ties to P&L owners. As one former leader from an Unstable team told us, "You need to attach your role to the bottom line."

Internal obstacles may be harder to solve than external ones.

Orchestrating the right channels, marketing partners, and content? That's a walk in the park, respondents told us, compared with solving how to operationalize multichannel inside a global pharma. 

Why? For one thing, pharmas historically are sales-driven, not marketing-driven. For another, the industry has struggled to recruit outsiders, including those who might bring their digital expertise from other verticals. 

These realities have spawned leadership that continually challenges the value and methods of multichannel teams. We heard from respondents how multichannel budgets are heavily scrutinized, while brand managers – often with limited marketing experience – squash programs whose value they don't understand. 

Meanwhile, the glittering promise of data generated by digital initiatives can be a detriment: It's hard to know which data points are most important. Common multichannel best practices, such as A/B testing, would help. But these pose headaches for regulatory and IT business partners in pharma. As one respondent shared, "It's embarrassing the amount of money we spend on A/B testing."

Strategies that work

Progressive commercial leaders are deploying effective strategies to structure their multichannel offerings. We collected anecdotes and observed trends from these best-in-class teams, which have progressed past mere stability into effective engines for productivity. A sampling of what we learned:

Process and efficiency are cost of entry.

Best-in-class respondents anticipate pharma's digital knowledge deficits by creating rules, governance, and mechanisms through which brands and agencies can efficiently implement campaigns. These successful groups promise efficiency – not "innovation" – and measure success by adherence to process and marketing dollars saved.

It's necessary to prioritize.

Not every channel, customer, or brand makes the cut when best-in-class teams plan their resourcing. We heard a diverse set of approaches to prioritization; several teams focus exclusively on physician marketing while others only on launch brands. One customer engagement leader told us his team does not support brand websites anymore. “They just aren’t that valuable,” he explained.

Problem-solving is critical.

Most multichannel teams we interviewed don't control the marketing purse strings; those who accept this supporting role appear most successful. Facing one brand “trying to spew up everything in a single email,” a multichannel team lead produced data showing how quickly physicians skim through emails. The brand changed course and built a series of short emails instead. 

As commercial leaders look to the future, it's hard to envision multichannel becoming less instrumental to their success. To achieve best-in-class status, they will need to assess all their capabilities in this area and define how they can best serve their organizations moving forward.

That's the right approach for multichannel teams committed to resilience in the face of upheaval.


Jeff Greene is VP, Digital Strategy & Insights, DRG Digital | Manhattan Research. He is the author of Structuring for Success (Manhattan Research, 2017), which looks at digital transformation through the lens of two dozen multichannel leaders representing 18 large and mid-size pharmas.

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