Building In Agility Into Pharma Marketing

2021-02-12 |  Magnus Franzen-Rossi

In a digital world, marketing looks different

Pharma have traditionally left distance between their traditional marketing activities and digital marketing activities. Recent trends, however, have shown that there is no difference between digital marketing and marketing – it is all just marketing.

This is a good thing. As we have seen in the aftermath of COVID-19, the traditional share-of-voice model with huge sales forces visiting doctors has its limitations. In a world where information is available with the click of a finger, where patients are turning from objects to subjects in healthcare, and where data finally has the potential to drive decision-making, this model might become decreasingly fit for purpose.

Further fuelling this trend is the shift of decision-making power in healthcare away from the individual doctor and towards institutions and payers, and the evolution of customer expectations on the experience they have with pharma. Altogether, this combination of digital transformation of the sector, changing power balance, and importance of experience over product creates new levels of complexity for pharma marketing.

To handle this complexity, the commercial organisation needs to evolve and become more agile.

Agile being a bit of a buzzword at the moment, let us make it clear from the outset. Agile with a capital ‘A’ as in Scrum, Kanban, post-its, and daily stand-ups, is not the same as, and not enough on its own to achieve, organisational agility.

In this article, we will show you how to create a marketing function that is truly agile.

A marketing function that is driven by digital looks different from the marketing pharma is used to. Five elements differ:

  • Speed. The ability to produce and deploy marketing messages in a digital world is much faster than in an analogue one. By the time, a paper pamphlet has been designed, printed, and physically distributed, a digital article will already have been published, read, and forgotten.
  • Adaptability. The ability to personalise content in a digital world allows you to cater to a wide range of customer needs in a cost-efficient way that would not be possible when leveraging analogue channels.
  • Adjacency. The internet has offset the traditional information asymmetry and information is now very easily accessed, which is particularly relevant for pharma.
  • Scale. Very important in other sectors such as retail and FMCG, the scale of digital marketing is potentially huge. For pharma, the potential of digital in this sense has often been framed as a more cost-efficient alternative to big sales forces.
  • Precision. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, digital allows you to measure performance, impact and customer behaviour which allows you to test and learn in a way that would make David Ogilvy dance with joy.

'Hacking Marketing' by Scott Brinker describes five key differences:

Agile marketing: huge potential upsides, but not a cure-all

Agile marketing has been positioned as a wholesale solution to several fundamental challenges within the traditional pharma marketing model (pushing messages instead of creating an experience; share-of-voice instead of loyalty and advocacy; static planning instead of iterative test and learn; opinion-led decision-making instead of data-led). And although a more agile marketing capability addresses some of these challenges and offers a solution to others, it is by no means the silver bullet that can reform pharma marketing.

The power of agile comes instead when it’s combined with a more profound transformation of marketing around the customer. This means an organisational shift (line management, organisational structure etc. looks different) and mind-set and cultural shift (a customer-centric culture needs to be instilled).

Agile marketing offers great opportunities. Here are five benefits we have seen:

  1. Speed to market. At a global bank we worked with, the time to market for an email campaign dropped from six to two weeks. In a global pharma company, approval times have dropped from four weeks to three days. The more fundamental benefit, however, is having the agility and ability to change focus quickly.
  2. Quality. 23% of senior marketers say agile marketing delivers higher marketing metrics and KPIs. 80% say agile helped them deliver a better and more relevant end-product. Iteration and test & learn helps you create something that actually resonates with your customers.
  3. Employee engagement. 87% of agile CMOs found their teams to be more productive. There is also evidence of an increase in morale and teamwork. In the bank example above, the team expressed a clear increase of job satisfaction.
  4. Talent attraction. Agile is a more modern way of working, which attracts key talent. The digital transformation is putting pressure on pharma to look outside the sector to attract new competencies.
  5. Efficiency. Agile increases accountability, transparency and visibility of initiatives. Given the cultural and organisational transformation needed to support agile, framing it as a pure cost-cutting exercise probably sends the wrong message. That said, making decisions based on data and evidence, and testing things before you develop them end-to-end ensures more informed, smarter decisions about where to allocate your promotional spend. 

Creating the foundation for Agile

It’s important to understand agile in the context of an overall customer-centric operating model. Agile marketing is an operational capability aimed at delivering an experience – it’s not just Post-it notes on a Kanban, nor is it the tell-all business model. 

Agile’s operational capability allows you to allocate and flex resources, iterate and innovate the way you engage with customers beyond traditional campaigns.

Therefore, real leverage of agile comes from aligning the capabilities to a customer journey, and a broader direction of Customer Experience Management. Without this structured approach dictating the impact you want to have on your customers’ lives and how to intentionally manage that impact, agile is a train without tracks: you will be able to do things faster, but not necessarily the right things

Standing up agile marketing beyond standing up agile marketing

From our experience designing and standing-up agile marketing organisations in pharma and other industries, we have identified six critical success factors:

1. Start with the customer

2. Set clear business objectives

3. Get the buy-in

4. Empower your teams

5. Implement step by step

6. Manage the project tightly but be pragmatic

Start with the customer

As we have already alluded to, agile needs to start with the customer. Even the set-up of the agile teams need to take a starting point in customer journeys and needs.

The way one global bank did this was first to do their homework to understand the customer journey, and then to identify ‘key customer needs’ that in some way aligned to their products. These customer needs were then the north star for their agile teams, rather than just product messaging. A need could be, for example, ‘having the home I want’, which would align with their home mortgage product. Knowing what their customers wanted allowed them to think differently about the experience they were trying to create for them.

Set clear business objectives

Agile teams are empowered to make decisions that traditionally have been taken higher up the ladder (see further down). However, to ensure that the agile team is making decisions that contribute to a larger strategic business goal, it is critical to set clear, transparent objectives for these teams. And you need a governance structure that allows you to do so.

This may sound fairly simple, but the truth is that in pharma, clarity on objectives and the subsequent accountability to achieving them, has not always been straight-forward. An agile organisation relies on this and the ‘old way of doing things’ cannot be allowed to continue. 

Get the buy-in

Agile teams are cross-functional. They consist of about 8-12 people that have the mandate and capability to deliver everything (in practice, sometimes relying on an extended team for specific tasks) that is needed to achieve a particular business objective. In pharma this means that a number of people from different functions will need to be onboard with the agile transformation.

Medical Affairs/Review is clearly one of these functions, which in some companies even sits outside the organisation. External Affairs, Market Access, IT could be others, depending on the focus of the agile team.

Empower your teams

As already mentioned, agile is completely dependent on self-organising teams being given an objective, and then tasked with figuring out how to deliver against it.

This is a completely new way of working for pharma, and one which has profound implications on what it means both to deliver work and to manage people.

What we have seen as pharma goes through this transformation, is confusion. There seems to often be a lack of competencies in mid-level management to either take on a more strategic role – setting out the strategic direction and business objectives for the teams – or to revert back into a more Subject Matter Expert role, delivering work rather than managing people’s day-to-day delivery.

Implement step by step

A common misunderstanding is that there is such a thing as a fully agile organisation. Even the most agile companies in the world (such as Spotify, Google, etc.) have agile and non-agile teams.

Certain functions and activities do not lend themselves well to agile ways of working.

Importantly, as an organisation embarks on the transformation, getting it right takes time and moving everybody into this way of working can be disruptive and quite painful.

We suggest that you go team by team and stand-up the agile marketing capability, get it working well, and then move on to the next team. Even if you have an ambitious vision for an agile organisation beyond marketing, you can still follow a similar approach.

Manage the project tightly, but be pragmatic

Another common misunderstanding that you can sometimes hear in companies or at conferences is that ‘change is the new normal’, and therefore ‘the transformation will never stop’. Although true in an almost philosophical sense, it can also be a recipe for disaster when it comes to transforming your company.

It’s true that change is happening more quickly – hence why we are trying to create this agile capability in the first place – but without a clear vision, plan, milestones, objectives, etc. the ‘agile project’ can very quickly turn into a never-ending story.

You need to run the project tightly and get the new organisation going quickly – for it to work, the organisation itself needs to be agile and able to respond to change.

A final misconception that comes from the more orthodox corners of the Agile world, is around how much of the agile doctrine is negotiable. For example, Agile dictates that teams should be co-located. In a modern pharma company that is rarely the case. Given COVID-19, we have all experienced a different reality that is unlikely to completely return to ‘normal’ any time soon. The trick is to find workable compromises to the agile ways of working.


The commercial organisation needs to evolve – few people would completely disagree with that.

Agile has been brought forward as a new way of working that constitutes this evolution. However, agile is just one piece of the puzzle. The transformation that is needed is more profound and includes organisational and cultural elements.

If you won’t remember much from this article (or you just scrolled straight to the bottom) remember this:

  • It’s not about strict adherence to Agile (big ‘A’) methodologies, but rather about driving agility in your commercial organisation
  • Driving this kind of transformation is not necessarily easy, but we have seen companies do this successfully when keeping these 6 things in mind:

    • Start with the customer
    • Set clear business objectives
    • Get the buy-in
    • Empower your teams
    • Implement step by step
    • Manage the project tightly but be pragmatic
  • The companies that get it right see a lot of benefits: both in the quality of their promotional activities, but also in their employee experience – because it becomes easier and more enjoyable to do the same job.