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Survival/Success in the Age of Too Much Information


To get their messages out in this age of polarisation and "too much information", marketers need to shout louder, have a more dramatic point of view and gather a league of similar advocates to succeed. Al Topin sees the solution in common sense and courage.

Al Topin

Somehow almost everything we hear or touch today has become infected with the polarization virus: from politics (of course), to science, the economy and even in sports, the writer, speaker or commentator has picked sides as if there are only two choices in the matter… with no middle. It’s a rush to polar outposts so the parties can toss written, spoken and videoed missiles at each other.  

The polarized arguments and shouting that makes interesting TV or news today often creates gridlock or failures in the business world. Health care marketing seems to be catching the same disease.

We hear:

  • Drugs are too damn expensive!

  • The ACA is awful and must be repealed!

  • Agencies charge to much/ clients just don’t spend enough

  • The agency doesn’t get it/ the client doesn’t get it

  • We must be all digital!

Healthcare marketing is slowly moving towards the world of absolutes. Reason, logic and debate have evolved into polarized opinions. Candidly, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t facts and truths behind these statements, but, the same can be said for the alternative polar outpost.

What’s driving this dramatic shift to polarized thinking? Since I’m not a psychologist, sociologist, historian, or even a pundit, I wouldn’t venture a guess. But I would toss the internet echo chamber into the pot as one of the basic ingredients.You want opinion, you can find any opinion. You want support for your opinions, you will find tons of support facts, rumors, conjecture and outright fabrications. We have long ago reached the point of too much information (TMI). We have more channels web sites and duplicated content than ever imagined. All multiplying logarithmically each year.

So, to be heard… you need to shout louder, have a more dramatic point of view and gather a league of similar advocates to succeed. In this cacophony, how dramatic is the middle ground? How newsworthy is a compromise?

Creating a demonized rival clarifies the difference. They’re bad, we’re good. The Clampets and McCoy’s fought for years, and in the process, killed each other off. By default, the last man/or woman standing defines the direction. 

So, what’s marketer to do? What’s the antidote for this epidemic of polarized thinking? The prescription: Take two simultaneous injections. One, an injection of common sense and the other, an injection of courage.

Frankly, the correct  solution may not be found in a compromise…the midpoint may just dilute the situation. But choosing the right position somewhere on the polar spectrum requires a large dose of common sense to avoid the emotion and demonization that come with it.

And , if the common-sense approach puts a manager at odds with corporate wisdom or management’s opinion…if an agency is not on the same page as their client… it takes a heap of courage to face that headwind.  (see Lou Reed - “Whole Lota Faith to Get By”)

No, I don’t have the solution to drug pricing or the ACA, but I can share some hard-earned insights into a few common marketing and agency/client situations.

So, here’s a few rules of the road that may help you to depolarize a situation. (Apply generously once in the morning and once before every meeting.)

It’s about the thinking, (stupid) - time, information and insight meet “We need this revenue in Q3”

Time can be a friend or enemy to us all. Rarely is there enough time to develop a launch plan in detail. But, allowing a realistic time frame to think through and discuss the issues can significantly improve the odds of success. But the manager hears: “We are going to find a way to launch at CNS no matter what“ which can result in “I don’t understand why uptake is so slow?”

Rushing to market, you are at the least sacrificing the thinking, experience and the valuable input of your multidisciplinary team and your agency. At most, you are wasting a good portion of your budget rushing to market without allowing your salesforce and support tactics to do their job.

This is not to say that an unexpected approval, a competitive launch or an impending market shortage shouldn’t ramp up the team. But in a market where success is won- one physician – one patient at a time, short term thinking can crush a solid opportunity.

Start with realistic (repeat: realistic) goals and resources/shareholder needs meets harsh marketing reality

Let’s start with the phenomenon of the incredible inflating sales forecast. Product management submits numbers with a detailed rationale. Senior management, at the other end of the polar spectrum, adds an extra layer of revenue with their rational that the salesforce can do better and marketing usually sand bags their numbers anyway.

Concurrent with increased forecasts, expenses get cut. “Sell more with less. Marketing doesn’t need all these elaborate tactics.” Not a recipe for success. Management is thinking of shareholders or equity partners not the marketplace. It takes real courage for a product manager to hold the line without sacrificing a career.

Short-sighted thinking impacts realistic planning. (Let’s call this a morbidity concurrent with polarization.) Management, thinking they can shortcut the leadership process, brings in one of their top sales people or sales managers from the field to manage the new brand.  She or he has been successful, knows how to manage their people in the field and certainly knows what the salesforce needs to succeed.

No marketing experience, limited experience managing a multidisciplinary team. Add global launch issues and the complications multiply. No transition time, a quick introduction to the newly formed team, increased sales forecasts, reduced expenses… What more can a newly minted product manager ask for?

Six tactics looking for a strategy

Have you ever watched a group of 4-year-olds play T ball? The coaches line the toddlers across the field in line with the pitcher from first base to third. And, then a miracle occurs and a tiny batter actually hits the ball… the entire group of kids from across the field converge on the ball in a pediatric scrum. (except for one or two that are still standing in place watching a butterfly). A similar pattern can be seen when a new and interesting tactical idea is used by one brand. If the tactic is successful the other brands follow. Resulting in what’s known as a “tactical scrum”. 

In the chaos of developing a launch, keeping things simple, focused and aligned is hard work. It takes discipline and courage to defend against the other side of the polarized spectrum that constantly adds more details and multiple directions. 

Agency as a partner or a vendor/trusted advisor meets procurement

No surprise, the agency/client relationship has become more and more polarized. While there are certainly a number of truly long lasting partnerships, the number is dwindling. The 4A’s tells us that the average lifecycle of a client/agency relationship is now less than 3 years. Yet, client interviews tell us that a strong relationship with their agency can be a critical part of a brand’s success. So how do you create that ally or trusted advisor? Here’s a few guidelines:

Make procurement your ally in finding and managing your agency. Help them understand the value a trusted advisor can bring to the success of the brand. Yes, there are procurement managers that specialize in marketing and communications and understand the broader role an agency can play, but often procurement’s goal is simply to get the best price and tightest contract.  An unfair remark. Maybe. But agencies can get categorized in the same boat as other service providers (In fact, an agency’s contracted hourly rate can actually be lower than a plumber’s.)

Bring the agency into the planning process early. Waiting to bring the agency in until you need to start creative robs you of their valuable insights during the critical planning and strategy. As an advisor, they can bring you thinking outside of typical corporate constraints (okay, political restraints) and make sure the customer and the brand has a clear, vocal champion. Plus, they can help connect the dots between trial endpoints, claims, and brand messaging.

Ask the agency to voice alternative points of view. . While this will certainly create some discomfort, their ability to play devil’s advocate and vet the group’s ideas will result in more solid thinking and robust reasoning.

Give them permission to tell you you’re wrong. Let the agency say what they think. A good, secure agency will not only challenge other outside partners’ thinking when appropriate, but they’ll challenge you as well. And as long as it’s done professionally and in the best interest of the brand, you should listen. (we’ll talk about the benefits of a “secure” agency in another article.)

Keep them listening to the conversations. As the conversation in healthcare changes with new demands on physicians’ time, patients demanding more control and new players added to the mix, task the agency with continuous monitoring and reporting on these multilevel discussions and applying that information to the planning and execution process.

Admittedly these issues/problems are not universal or consistent in our business… but do occur more regularly than one might think in corporations large and small. It takes courage to challenge the process when the long arm of management reaches out to your brand.  

To paraphrase an old quote, “The first casualty in marketing is common sense”.

Al Topin is President, Topin & Associates, an HCB Health Company. He is a member of Pharm Exec’s Editorial Advisory Board.






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