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What can pharma can learn from Steve Jobs?

Published on 19/11/12 at 03:32pm
Steve Jobs image
Steve Jobs on stage in 2010 - the backdrop shows Jobs with business partner Steve Wozniak in 1976 on the day they founded Apple


“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesise new things.”

Apple is now the world’s most valuable brand, worth more than $70 billion. To put this into some perspective with the pharmaceutical industry, pharma’s highest entry in the Global Brand chart comes in at number 319 (Pfizer, valued at $3.4 billion).

One of the things which has set Apple apart from its rivals is the single-minded vision which its founder and guiding light, Steve Jobs, brought to the company and its products. So as an industry we have lots to learn.

In the course of an eventful career - not always characterised by success - Jobs was able to articulate the philosophy which informed his leadership of the company. To mark a year since his passing, Pharmafile asked members of the team at specialist pharmaceutical strategic marketing consultancy The MSI Consultancy to suggest some lessons that the pharma industry could learn from Mr Jobs.

On creativity

Alex Blyth/Jonathan Dancer: Creativity is about being willing to take a risk, and being open - not closing things down. Willingness to take a risk is a central tenet of creativity, as is curiosity - constantly asking why and how.

Jobs is right: it is about connecting things, but it has to be associated with a willingness to make unusual connections. That lateral thinking comes from a recognition that anything is possible, everything can be changed. Too often pharma find reasons not to change things, there always seems to be a reason why not, but there is always one very good reason why they should, and that is to gain an advantage.

Unfortunately society tends to knock out that childish naivety and curiosity that we all have when we are small; in our industry we allow them to be knocked out by ‘compliance’.

Steve Jobs was very unwilling to be constrained by people who said “you can’t do that, it isn’t practical, it’s impossible”. He maintained that very open view that children have. Pharma needs to do the same.

On innovation

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

Oliver Leatham: Because pharmaceutical products are generally the result of many years - and even more dollars - spent in R&D, we tend to think that throwing money at a problem will somehow magically throw up marvellous creativity. But recent research into innovative medicines suggests that innovation does not have to be linked to investment.

Of course, you need cash to support R&D, manufacturing and so on, but what will count in the marketplace is our ability to do something differently. That means allowing our people enough time and space to think and be creative.

Apple has been great at this, and it is not alone in the technology field. Google allows its employees free time on a Friday - ‘Google Fridays’ - in order to be innovative and to improve their current way of working. Imagine what pharma might achieve if it did something similar.

One good example of innovative thinking in our industry is Novartis, which has set up small offices in four biotech ‘hotspots’ to tap into emerging healthcare technology. This shows a more lateral approach to R&D, leveraging the expertise of smaller businesses with the ability to innovate, but lacking the commercial clout of big pharma. We need to learn that innovation and good ideas come from people who have the space to think, not from big budgets.

On creating demand

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

Paul Stuart-Kregor: Clearly development cycles in pharma are so long - longer even than in Apple’s world - that realistically it’s not the same as a consumer product. But in both cases, customers are very much grounded in what they know now, and it’s very challenging to get a customer to do anything other than tell you how to improve something they already know. We need to get customers to get out of that space and think beyond it.

So when it comes to marketing insight, pharma needs to be using different approaches to get people to start thinking beyond where they are and what they already have, towards something completely different.

Take the NHS: it needs ways to save money, and is looking for incremental change to do that. But to get to where they need to be, they have to think about doing things differently. So as marketers, we have to get people in the NHS out of the mindset they are in now, and help them approach things from a different direction, and that is difficult.

Apple has succeeded by leading the market down paths based on really understanding consumers’ needs, which means it produces solutions the market wants, even if it didn’t know that before Apple provides them.

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

When you look at the challenges that healthcare systems are facing within our markets, and that the industry is facing from increased competition, generics and cost constraint, we have to find ways of working differently to overcome these new marketing challenges. The people who are going to be seen as leaders are those who succeed in doing that.

It is not just about the marketing mix, or even new tools within that mix such as digital; the fundamental thing will be how the industry works with end-users - payers, providers and so on - in a very different way than purely a supplier. It is going to be very hard to justify the price premiums the industry is looking for in quality products without doing something different.

Pharma needs to look at redefining the way we interact with our customers, and in the way we do things if we are to be able to take the lead.

On simplicity

“That’s been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Alex Blyth/Jonathan Dancer: Marketers tend to over-complicate things, but pharma is particularly guilty of trying to do everything. Apple is excellent at having a simple proposition focused on what they do that is different.

We work a lot with companies embarking on Marketing Excellence, and we often see that their strategy tries to ‘do everything’ and their messages try to ‘say everything’ - as opposed to focusing on the things they need to do exceptionally well and the few messages that really differentiate them.

The point Jobs makes about moving mountains is well-made: it can only come from ruthless focus and extreme simplicity. If you spread your effort across the whole mountain, nothing is going to move.

Pharma does tend to overuse the word ‘critical’ - as in Critical Success Factor - and we often end up with a multitude of CSFs, when really we should concentrate on no more than five.

That way you can succeed in doing a few things very well. Apple had a very set idea of what the purpose was of the product they were developing, and pharma could learn a lot from that.

On excellence

“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? So this is what we’ve chosen to do with our life.”

Oliver Leatham: Too often we in pharma settle for the comfortable, for the ‘good enough,’ without giving too much thought as to how we can do things differently. Steve jobs was right - life is all too brief, as his own premature death demonstrates.

But at least he went to his grave knowing he had applied focus and excellence to everything he did. How many of us will be able to say the same when our time comes? And if life is brief, product lifecycles are even shorter, with tighter regulation and the increasing threat of biosimilars and new technology in many markets.

That means that pharma has to be really excellent at every stage of a product’s lifecycle, to maximise the value for patients and the industry itself. We must learn not to settle for the way things are, because the landscape is constantly changing; and that means that pharma’s commercial leaders have to challenge themselves to think differently.

In some ways, pharma is like a big ship: the momentum is so great that it takes time to shift its course. But pharma needs to address the gaps in its capabilities, understand the market better, recognise where there are unmet needs and above all, ensure that everything it does throughout a product’s lifecycle reflects excellence.

Paul Stuart-Kregor: Often, when pharma marketers talk about excellence, they cite awards won for tactical execution, but realistically, being excellent in marketing is about effective strategic thinking and the discipline to come up with differentiated, competitive, sustainable brand propositions, driven by true insight.

Too many pharma marketers don’t really know what ‘good’ looks like, and what ‘excellence’ is all about, so they don’t have that yardstick to judge what is going into the process, with the inevitable consequence for the outcome.

For pharma to become that ‘yardstick of quality,’ it has to have the strategic marketing skills. In general our industry is committed to quality; it’s more of a skills problem than an attitudinal one.

If you look at the Apple brand, everything hangs together and the brand values are reflected consistently in every aspect of it. Every interaction needs to build the brand proposition, and pharma has not always been great at that. If we are to be ‘excellent’ we need to know what ‘excellent’ is and then fight to maintain it.

On using instinct

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Alex Blyth/Jonathan Dancer: This is reminiscent of a quote from Kierkegaard, who said: “We live our lives forwards, but understand them backwards.” When you are putting together strategy and forecasting, you never really know if it is going to be right until you get there, you have to base it as much as you can on history and science.

But the most important thing is that strategy is not immutable; it has to be alive, and subject to current insights from the real world as you go forward.

People need to be brave when they make assumptions, you have to trust in something. Marketers are often too scared to even have a strategic hypothesis, all the more so in pharma where we are very risk-averse. You need to trust in something, whether that is your own experience and ‘feel’, your vision for the brand, or your belief in your routes to market.

There is some evidence that people get what they expect, so if you start off with a very vanilla-flavoured, slightly bland vision, that is what you will end up with. If you commit to something, the chances are you will at least partly make it happen.

On broader horizons

“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

Cassandra Rix: If Steve Jobs thought people in the technology sector lacked broader experiences, it is doubly so for pharma. Most of the people making high level decisions on marketing strategy haven’t been in the field in the market for a long time.

Not only did they come up through the industry - where so much has changed in a short period of time - but few have experience of any other industry.

It is time for pharma to open up to bringing in talent from other sectors, who will be able to draw on different experiences, and who will not be hide-bound by the “this is how pharma does things” thinking.

“We’re just enthusiastic about what we do.”

The industry needs this fresh perspective, because otherwise we run the risk of not being able to visualise the ideal future without thinking of the bad present.

And it’s not just work experiences which can give us a broader perspective: non-work influences are vital as well. Often these unconnected activities are just as relevant in helping us learn what motivates people, how people get engaged, and how we might solve problems with them.

Sadly we tend to compartmentalise our lives, and don’t bring learnings from outside our work lives into what we do every day. Pharma expects complete focus from its workforce, if that stops them being complete people, then the industry’s performance will suffer.

Paul Stuart-Kregor: There is no doubt that pharma brand managers have always been, and continue to be, very positive about their brand and being brand champions. But if marketing, rather than other disciplines, is to lead our industry, we have to be enthusiastic about our ‘technical’ discipline, and demonstrate that we do actually do something that is very different, we add something.

That enthusiasm will make a big difference to the way that people buy into what we do and how we do it. But - everybody in our industry is hugely busy, and the challenge is not to allow ourselves to be ground down by the pressures of the job.

The structure of pharma is in many cases squeezing out creativity and enthusiasm. We need to create a great environment to work in - like Steve Jobs did at Apple - where people can enjoy what they do.

The Authors

Paul Stuart-Kregor, Director and founding partner; Oliver Leatham, EU Market Access consultant; Cassandra Rix, Head of Market Access; Jonathan Dancer, Managing partner; Alex Blyth, Managing director, Cello Business Sciences.

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