Is Digital Marketing a Dead-End Job?

Zoe Dunn
Zoe Dunn

Manhattan Research recently conducted a study, which it unveiled at the MM&M Transforming Healthcare conference. Of all the digital centers of excellence (CoE) leaders included in the study, only one was above the director level. Yet many of these pharma professionals have spent the majority of their careers in this area.


So it makes me wonder, if we have pharma VPs of marketing, but no VPs of digital, either we need to stop calling it digital marketing (because digital is baked into business) and just consider it marketing. If we feel like we can't, then digital might very well be a dead-end job.


Are the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device industries ready to embrace these digital change agents or will they be stuck in a no man's land, continually justifying their roles? Perhaps, in order to innovate, they'll have to challenge the status quo and pave their own pathway to success—a massive task considering the challenges they are trying to overcome every day by just elevating their brands and companies into the digital age. (The very phrase “digital age” feels antiquated now, doesn't it?)


In many industries (financial services or advertising, to name two), there's a clear career path. Pharma marketers often start out in sales, honing their skills with products and conditions, rubbing elbows with physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Then they come inside and join a brand team, working their way from role to role, brand to brand, every 18 months or so. If it all goes as planned, eventually they end up in leadership and retire, hopefully with a great package to boot.


But what if you are in digital marketing? Perhaps you work for a digital CoE and are responsible either for a certain focus (i.e., media, mobile or CRM) across brands or you're tasked with a particular brand or franchise and serve as the digital leader, where you help the brand teams implement strategic tactics or keep the agency partners on track. That's great if you came from the brand side. After all, you could always go back to the brand and continue your steady upward trajectory. But if you don't come from the brand side, you may be out of luck …


And here's the problem.


Most digital specialists in pharma wind up in a CoE role, which is great for them and the companies they work for. These folks tend to be really drawn to digital as a solution. They have a solid knowledge of marketing, which is a different skillset than the skills of IT folks, who are also drawn to digital—no offense. And they are likely change agents who are not only unafraid to challenge the status quo but are drawn to that task. If that's you, I'll compliment you a bit more by saying that you are tenacious (you need to be in order to break through the comfort zone of tradition), smart (well, that goes without saying) and pretty cool, since your world is changing every day and you have to be on top of those changes. These are the guys with the Apple Watch on pre-order.


To borrow a phrase from Wikipedia, I'd like to call these digital specialists “intrapreneurs.” Intrapreneurship is the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organization. Instead of creating and growing their own businesses, these digital mavens eagerly help evolve the company they work for. What could be more amazing than that? Instead of playing it safe, these folks specifically look for ways to shake up the system and pave the way for innovation.


The traditional brand person's career map looks something like this:

brand manager >>> senior brand manager >>> director >>> VP, marketing


Whereas the digital marketer's career map looks something like this:

manager, digital marketing >>> agency or consulting firm >>> director at a different pharma company >>> digital marketing agency or independent consultant >>> senior director, digital marketing, at another pharma company >>> TBD


Fifteen to 20 years of experience as a digital marketer and now you've hit the “digital ceiling” and have no idea what to do next. Wait, how could a digital ceiling even exist in a digital world? Could it be that we are just more comfortable with the status quo? It's because the pharmaceutical industry still lives in a traditional marketing world. Regulation and cost are the only reasons anyone has given up direct sales as a primary channel.


Many pharma marketers still buy into the notion that TV is the most powerful channel—though I believe that myth is only being perpetuated by desperate agency partners, afraid to lose their lucrative revenue stream. Digital marketers know that no one even watches TV in the traditional way anymore. (Binge-watching on Netflix or streaming Hulu through your iPad, anyone?). Until senior management wakes up and smells the possibilities, or until digital leaders break through into those VP and president roles, there is just not a lot of hope for change.


So, if you're reading this and you are senior management or even a digital specialist's boss, the chances are you've hit a gold mine. This employee could be a star in your organization—she will likely put your company on the cover of magazines and your brand(s) on the lips of every man, woman and pharmacist in the world. She might reinvent your stale and stodgy IT organization (really, does anyone want IT in its current form to sit at a brand strategy table?) and provide value to your franchises in the form of truly integrated marketing and analytics strategy.


Or maybe she won't. And why not? Because this incredibly motivated and unique individual will be fighting tooth and nail every day to justify her very existence in the company. She will beg for budget to innovate and tin cup to brands to use new communication channels that she knows will bring them closer to their patients and healthcare professionals. And she will be subjected to ROI standards that no brand team has ever had to answer to.


If you are a manager of a digital person, don't be surprised if this person comes to you frustrated, or worse, with a letter of resignation. Because right now, in 2015, it appears that digital really is a dead-end job.


Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal of Hale Advisors.