From diversity to pricing issues, BMS marketing chief strikes a balance

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During her keynote presentation at MM&M's Hall of Femme event earlier this summer, Susan Sweeney simply laid out her case for improved gender diversity in and around pharma. Rather than rail against the industry's frustrating lethargy in diversifying its upper ranks, she framed diversity's costs in business terms.

“When we have diverse teams, we get better outcomes,” Sweeney observed. “When I've been a part of teams that are diverse — those are the ones that help patients and that work tirelessly to make sure that we're collectively advancing healthcare.”

Over the course of her career, the last 22 years of which have been spent at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Sweeney has earned a reputation for such pragmatism and attentiveness to the things that really matter. To wit: During a conversation following her Femme induction, Sweeney seemed most excited and engaged when discussing the procedures put in place during her BMS tenure to ensure that the company's focus on diversity and developing its people never wanes.

See also: Hall of Femme of 2017

“The only thing that really works is a conscientious ‘what am I going to do to develop myself this year?' approach,” she explains. “In the case of somebody who works with me, their stretch assignment is to lead an international team, which he's never done before. We've surrounded him with mentors and coaches who are accountable for helping him.”

Asked how the employee is doing, Sweeney cheerily responds, “Great! It hasn't been without foibles — but that's a learning in itself, figuring out how to proceed when something doesn't go as planned.”

Sweeney joined the pharma world as a health economics researcher. When she arrived at BMS, however, she quickly realized the limitations of such a role.

“I was discussing a study about a product we had done with a payer and felt that I was only talking about one little piece of the picture,” she recalls. “I felt I could make a bigger impact if I went into brand marketing.”

See also: The immuno-oncology market prepares for the inevitable question: 'What's next?'

Her instinct was spot-on. Over the course of the next decade, Sweeney found herself working on brands that never made it to market, as well as on such blockbuster-grade successes such as Plavix, Eliquis, and BMS' diabetes franchise. She emerged from the experience with a well-rounded skill set, one that served her perfectly during the role she occupied before her current one: chief of staff for BMS CEO Giovanni Caforio.

Now, as the company's worldwide commercialization proxy, Sweeney has a broad mandate. Describing the current era as “a renaissance of drug discovery,” she is tackling the big question of how BMS can continue to bring transformative products to market.

“Years ago, as an industry we weren't good at that. Products within a given category were very similar,” she explains. “It's a huge challenge, in that many of us have exited particular disease areas — because, really, where else is there to go? Look at HCV, which is just about done.”

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As a result, Sweeney is focusing on pricing- and access-related concerns. She points to a handful of markets — Australia, Canada, and the U.K. — as ones that demand a higher degree of cost-effectiveness data, referring to the process of “assembling that perfectly right dossier of information” as “an ongoing struggle.” At the same time, she worries that advancements in certain therapeutic categories are outpacing the healthcare system's ability to digest them.

“With our products in oncology, the indications are coming fast. Current systems aren't designed to keep pace,” she says.

Sweeney has three children and her husband has three more, so clearly she's adept in the art of balancing multiple agendas. “It makes me really like work,” she says. While she considers her current gig to be her dream job, Sweeney accepts change as the one constant in pharma.

“The last three or four roles I've had didn't exist at the time I came to BMS,” she notes. “I set as my goal being a commercial leader. Now I'm a commercial leader. But my next role probably doesn't exist yet, either.”

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