Retaining talent: How pharma can compete with Google

Employers now need to protect their personnel flank against voracious health-minded tech giants like Google, which offers perks including education, 24/7 tech support and gourmet food.

Pharma marketing jobs aren't easy to fill. Companies and agencies constantly prowl for sharp individuals who can multitask at warp speed while juggling the industry's unique mix of commercial, scientific, and digital demands. Once organizations find the right people and develop their skills, they usually want to keep them.

In recent years this has proved even more of a challenge than it once was. Employers now need to protect their personnel flank against voracious health-minded tech giants, not to mention health-tech startups keen on adding creative and marketing muscle. And then there are those supposed job-hopping millennials. So how can marketing firms counteract the industry's brain drain, short of doubling salaries and escalating already-raging perk wars? Here, four companies share their strategies and tactics.

See also: What pharma companies and agencies can learn from Amazon


More than 70 Klick staff helped ALS Ice Bucket Challenge co-founder Pat Quinn launch the second annual Ice Bucket Challenge outside Klick's headquarters in August 2015.

Jay Goldman, MD of Sensei Labs at Klick Health, is pleased that his organization doesn't have a personnel-retention problem on its hands. At the same time, he believes that the traditional pharma–healthcare agency world has little regard for the well-being of its staff.

It doesn't have to be that way, he stresses.

“What excites the people we hire is challenge and growth. They help the company grow, and that creates more opportunity,” Goldman says. Klick's people operations and senior leadership team focuses on helping individuals confront the challenges in their paths and identifying a way forward. “You might not move up the ladder, but over a ladder — say, from writing code to project management,” he explains. “That kind of lateral movement keeps people engaged.”

See also: Facebook's Everson: Agencies lagging on mobile creative

Goldman believes that Genome, Klick's customized intranet system, represents another advantage. The agency uses Genome to apply technology and data analysis to all of its internal processes: from managing projects to, as Goldman puts it, “providing personalized data-driven experiences for our employees.”

Genome collects and analyzes a constant stream of data, right down to office minutiae (such as when staffers enter and leave the building via key cards). Data from Genome is used to identify the precise moment when an employee will benefit most from training. Klick Academy, an in-house learning tool built into Genome, then delivers customized materials to help employees expand their skills. Genome works so well, in fact, that Klick launched Sensei Labs in part to sell Genome to other biotech companies.

Pharma companies, needless to say, have different personnel needs than agencies like Klick. That's why Ironwood Pharmaceuticals has focused on bolstering the capabilities of its people via constant training. To that end, every manager is measured on a “people goal” — how successfully their direct reports develop.

See also: Burcin departs Havas network for Klick Health in senior-staffing push

“Metrics of how well we attract, retain, and develop our people are included in our annual corporate goals,” notes SVP of human resources Jonathan Rosin. “We update each other on specific employees and how we can further develop them. We value not just skill sets and contributions to the business, but also how well they demonstrate our core values.”

Additionally, cross-functional collaborations broaden the knowledge base of Ironwood employees. For example, the company understands that its scientists want sales staffers to have a solid footing in science. So before Ironwood hired its national sales team, it brought some of its top scientists into the field to work with HR on recruiting.

“The scientists gained appreciation for the work the sales force does, and the sales force got direct input from the people who discover and develop our medicine,” Rosin reports.

But he adds that careers at Ironwood don't necessarily follow a straight path. For example, the company's senior director of operations excellence was once a pharmacologist; its director of regulatory affairs is a former bench scientist. “We give employees flexibility in their career paths,” says Rosin. “That encourages them to build long and satisfying careers here.”


Bayer encourages employees to own their career path — regardless of its particular direction.

Bayer shares that same goal, even as a vastly different entity from Ironwood — it's been around for 150 years, plus it has about 13,000 employees in the U.S. alone. The company's breadth, however, means that any one-size-fits-all approach isn't likely to hit the mark.

That's why Bayer has created a data-driven devel­­opment platform for its employees, according to U.S. head of talent management, Sharyn Jones, that also takes into account conversations with the individual.

“We consider the employee's needs: What are the gaps? What can we offer to close the gaps?” she explains. “It might be a half-day session, a weeklong course, or a peer-mentoring program that leverages in-house talent.”

See also: Pharma M&A activity reaches new heights this year

Whatever the approach, Bayer encourages employees to own their career path — regardless of its particular direction. “Our model is up, down, and across. Employees can grow in depth or breadth,” Jones continues. “We open up all our available posi­tions to employees across the company. Everyone can see our internal job board.”

Along those lines Bayer engages employees by a variety of tactics. “We'll put out a challenge to the whole company to solve a problem, such as how to keep a certain product at a set temperature,” says Jones. “There might be someone in finance who thinks, ‘I've got an idea how to do that.' We make sure to recognize and reward employees for their input.”


Michael Sanzen, founder and chief creative officer at Concentric Health Experience, acknowledges the constant personnel musical chairs in the agency world. But amid a recent growth spurt, he cautions companies to keep emphasis where it matters most: on internal culture.

“We didn't want our growth to change who we are so we focused on maintaining what we'd built and evolving it,” he says.

To complicate matters, Concentric — which, as a New York City–based entity, contends with challenges related to the limited availability and high cost of Big Apple real estate — had to reduce personal space as it added staff. “We found that when done right, it actually improves the environment,” Sanzen reports. “Having a lot of common work areas ensures that everyone knows one another. It forces people to get up and find space to work together.” 

Concentric's apprentice program brings in new recruits every year for a three-month training program. Mostly graduating college seniors, they're tutored by the office's seasoned staff on a range of essential skills. Once the apprenticeships conclude, successful grad­uates find those places to which they are best suited.

“We find that those entering the program generally don't leave,” says Sanzen. “We immerse them in the work quickly and give them a tremendous amount of responsibility.”

See also: Is This the End of Agency Diversification?

Current employees receive similar opportunities to attend in-house classes and add new skills; someone in project management might sign up to learn more about user experience. Outside continuing education is strongly encouraged as well. Managers receive a budget for their department and are evaluated on how many employees take courses. To boost participation, the managers distribute lists of courses and conferences and sit down with their team to discuss options.

“Lots of employees have been with us nine or ten years,” adds Sanzen. “We actually encourage people to leave if they're offered a great opportunity elsewhere. But some end up coming back — and that speaks volumes about what we do.”


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