Making The Digital Leap

Savvy digital skills are the new currency in marketing, but how are marketers coping?



Consider the Venn diagram for the intersection of marketing and digital within an organisation. In one circle, we have the traditional pharma marketeers and their longstanding methods of working, and on the other side there are the digital natives, ready to cause serious disruption. The area where these intersect is currently quite narrow, but for organisations wanting to keep up in the new digital landscape marrying the very necessary skills of both is essential.

The traditional model of marketing is being upended as sophisticated tools present new possibilities, agrees Sari Ruth Carter, Digital Consultant and Head of Marketing at Anthill Agency, who delivered a thought-provoking presentation on this topic at eyeforpharma Barcelona. She says that the new era of digital is here and it is fundamental to the way we look at marketing today.

“At the same time however I always like to explain that I don’t really see digital marketing as a thing in itself, but it’s simply marketing in the digital world.”   

This is a crucial distinction, because in Carter’s opinion, one of the big risks for pharma, as well as many other industries, is to not silo digital as a mere “add-on”. “It is a fundamental piece of what we do now,” she says.

Another issue threatening the adoption of digital is that many organizations have thus far focused on the technology, and forgot the people who can make it possible, Carter notes. “A huge piece of the puzzle we have ignored up to this point and then suddenly you see it popping up again and again, is that we have forgotten the people when it comes to digital.

“It is really easy to get focused on the tools and the channels and everything we have at our fingertips now given the digital age we now live in, but I actually think that in the course of getting excited about the technology and the operational part, we forgot that we fundamentally need the marketeers to own it and to be able to deliver in this space. We didn’t necessarily pay attention to whether we were bringing people along with us on this journey.”

Susan Garfield, Commercial Strategy Lead, EY Life Sciences, understands why marketers can be wary of digital – she says they’re no different from the general public in this regard.

“Digital is a new engagement platform and most people who are being tasked with leveraging and optimising it for commercial purposes are still learning how they’re leveraging digital in their own lives and figuring out what works for them, never mind what works for their customers,” she explains.

“People are learning and doing it at the same time, this is very different to the past where with traditional marketing channels there was years and years of experience and optimisation and comfort. While we are trying to leverage digital to interact with our customers to make meaningful lasting engagement and relationships with them, we are not doing it from a position of knowledge but rather from a position of experimentation.”

Going back to the Venn diagram, marketeers have a particular set of skills, as do digital experts. Finding someone who is a hotshot at both is not going to be that easy, Carter admits.

“I think it is true that to be a digital specialist that sometimes that means that you lack the big picture or the understanding you would have if you were a marketeer who’s been working in marketing for a long time. It is hard to suddenly make a marketeer be a digital specialist and vice versa.”

Claudia Adreani is all too familiar with this challenge. The Head of Customer Marketing at Boehringer Ingelheim has spent a good part of her career trying to reconcile these differences indifferent companies. In her personal experience, sometimes the answer is not always hiring digital experts from more digitally advanced industries into the marketing function; indeed, this can go wrong, she says.

“These digital experts can get frustrated pretty quickly when they enter pharma. You’ve got someone coming from the FMCG world working in digital and doing really innovative and fast-moving things and you put them in the highly regulated, slower paced, pharma environment and that’s a really good way to lose them very quickly,” she says bluntly.

“They speak a very different language to everyone else and that is very hard, at least in the companies I have worked in. Pharma pace can be much slower than other industries and its high level of regulation can lead to risk aversion and more traditional thinking so you need someone very resilient who can keep pushing the boundaries and wait for things to happen and for projects to get off the ground. Additionally they need to be willing to embrace Pharma compliance and be able to work around its limitations, so finding the right breed of digital marketer can be a challenge in the transformational process.”

All interviewees agree that to truly excel in digital marketing, pharma must collaborate with external partners.

“Partnerships are something the industry is looking more and more tapping into so you don’t have to invent things internally but you can use some of the best practice that are already happening outside. We are not the experts, we don’t have so many digital native experts within the industry so we need to look outside,” asserts Adreani.

Carter agrees. “I really think there needs to be more partnership between specialists and marketeers. That is one way to stay competitive by focusing on the opportunity to use different strengths in the broader industry.”

In line with this view that marketeers don’t necessarily have to become digital experts overnight, Carter suggests that they simply need to have a strong understanding of the basics of good digital marketing.

“Within the pharma industry, it is about making sure marketeers understand enough in order to be able to own that thinking and implement it within their strategies but ultimately they don’t necessarily need to know every nitty-gritty detail about how to tactically deliver that – as long as they know enough to expect the right things from say, an agency or a partner who is helping them deliver it.”

Ultimately, it’s about buy-in; employees need to understand why they are moving in this direction. “Part of the people thing is about education, but it is also about building belief,” explains Carter.

“People understand that they have to use different channels but you need to help them understand and believe in the ‘why’. If not, that means when something goes wrong people see it as proof it wasn’t a good idea, rather than saying, ‘I still believe in the fact that we need to go in this direction, so let me analyse why did something go wrong and what are we going to do differently next time’. The belief part is so important to ensure that you future proof this culture and digital attitude moving forward.”    

According to Garfield, at its core, digital marketing is ultimately about behavior change.

“To build digital platforms and engagement models that will have a significant impact we have to understand the science of behavior change. At EY we have what’s called the Behavior Hub where we gather a lot of learning around the science of behavior change and use that to help digital leaders inform some of their decision-making and also help them think through what type of engagement models are going to have the biggest impact.”

The key issue is sustainability – something many organizations have neglected as they undergo a digital transformation, says Garfield; “We create these tools and platforms that are either not integrated into larger systems or are isolated or don’t take into account the real way people engage with technology and therefore don’t have a lasting impact. We need to be leveraging digital to create sustainable change.”

As for the traditional marketeers being wary of digital and resistant to change, Adreani says she sees this becoming less of a problem, as the inevitability of digital is now obvious.

“It’s not even a question anymore, it’s not if, it is how and when and how fast we can catch up. Many marketeers have now grown up with technology, so it is becoming less of a problem, and digital is part of the curriculum in any business school.”

Yet strong leadership in a digital direction is paramount, with upper management, even those with many years of experience in the less digital practice, needing to be equipped with more than basic digital knowhow.

“It is easy to sell Digital it as an idea, the difficulty comes with role modeling and for that the leadership needs to be sure and aligned on what good looks like. Digital transformation processes need to consider this, so the leadership digital capability building is key.” explains Adreani.

“When it comes to brand plan reviews and reviews of content and tactics, this means the younger marketers need to be challenged. If we want to drive digital adoption, the right questions have to be asked, and often they are not.”

According to Garfield, it is about building specific capabilities within marketing teams.

“The great thing about digital is that it allows hyper-personalisation in the way that we can reach customers – it also creates hyper-personalisation in the way we can train our teams and really think about the specific capabilities we need to build in our team members. EY spends a lot of time with our clients who are on their digital transformation journeys helping them understand what types of skills their teams need to execute – we assess capabilities as opposed to people and build training tools that can specifically target this. Once people have these capabilities they can move more easily between roles and you get a much more flexible workforce.”

Adreani insists that any educational or training program must be properly integrated into the everyday work of the marketeer, so its relevance is immediately appreciated.

“It should be seen as a core capability that all marketeers should have – rather than an add-on that is done once a year. The timeline is critical so here we link them to what the marketers are working on within the brand planning cycle. For example, if they are doing market research, then maybe that is a good time to show them what social listening is about and they can leverage that to learn about their customer, rather than just doing it at a random point in the year.”

“There is absolutely a place for educational programs, whether that is eLearning programs or embedding people who build capabilities in your training organisation. It is about giving them a common knowledge and making sure that people in different areas within the organization know what each other is talking about,” adds Carter.

“We can help them in defining digital, how to use omnichannel and multichannel, a basic understanding of best practice, how to know when to use different channels at the right time for our customers. But at some point down the road there needs to be opportunities to hand over and work with partners because that is what is going to help you deliver.”


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