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Strangers in the Shadows


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-09-01-2002

Sixteen years ago I began to edit Pharmaceutical Executive, a magazine unknown to me only a few months before. Today, I wonder how much I've learned in all the time since.

Sixteen years ago I began to edit Pharmaceutical Executive, a magazine unknown to me only a few months before. Today, I wonder how much I've learned in all the time since.

It was never among my greatest dreams, hopes, or inklings that I would remain with this job so many years. But it has been the greatest experience I could ever imagine. I began as a stranger to the industry-and still now, on occasion, it seems a stranger to me.

When companies abandon the honorable path, when sales reps counsel bad medicine, when marketers invade individuals' privacy, I do not recognize the industry for the friend it has become. No doubt, as that friend always maintains, such incidents are rare. No matter. It takes but a few off-color paint drops to tint the entire bucket.

When headlines carry fresh fodder for industry critics, my hackles rise. If I know the facts, I may decide to join the defense or, if the accused party appears guilty, at least help aim the criticism accurately. It offends the sense of fairness my own parents practiced to besmirch all companies because of the actions of a few.

But the thought often nags me, "For every outlaw apprehended, how many get away unnoticed?" In response to PhRMA's amazingly strict new marketing code, the chairman of Merck convincingly assured me that his company's long-time practices were even more conservative than the code. But months before the code's debut, Pfizer's head of pharmaceuticals acknowledged the obvious-that "when you get into a very competitive situation and rely on a lot of people to play it out...you can't control everything."

One of the industry's harshest critics, Sidney Wolfe, once denied being that very thing-right to my face. "On any given day," he said, "I'm always the best friend to the competitors of the particular company I've just criticized." He pointed out, quite accurately, that most companies maintain whole departments dedicated to catching their competitors at some legal or regulatory transgression.

But is such industry self-policing enough to prevent the offenses? Quite the contrary.

It seems more likely that it actually stimulates marketers to push the envelope, just to see what they can get away with-and what they can catch their competitors at. In an ever-escalating marketing war, each company goads the others on.

Just one problem: People everywhere are starting to see through the game, and they dislike intensely what they see. What was once an insiders' conflict has entered the great public arena, taking up a fair share of consumers' attention that the industry wished on itself. And, boy, did it ever get its wish!

Another industry executive, the chairman of Novartis, gave me this idea: "Public image and transparency have become increasingly important for Novartis, and I believe it is valid for the industry as a whole." Playing the old and dangerous game of marketing one-upmanship contradicts that transparency, and my guess is that it will not long survive the light of day.

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