New year, no fear

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It's not unusual for the pharmaceutical industry to welcome the New Year with at least a little trepidation. But for a sector under pressure and short on new products operating in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression—and under a fresh, Democratic administration—2009 really does take the cake for uncertainty.
Even MM&M's owner, The Right Honorable The Lord Heseltine, the former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK and with a long and successful career in politics and business, has little idea of when the markets will stabilize. “Nobody knows when we will reach the bottom or how deep it will be,” he told delegates at the recent PRWeek Next Conference in New York. 

While healthcare is a somewhat resilient beast, the pharma industry is far from recession-proof. Manhattan Research, for example, recently reported how 40 million Americans forewent prescription drugs in 2008 due to prohibitive costs. And while some of this can be attributed to managed care issues, there is little doubt that the financial constraints on the end user are starting to “trickle up” into manufacturers. 

Many of pharma's partner agencies are having a tough time, too—in recent weeks, we've already lost a couple of big names in KPR and Glow Worm.

And with the constant threat of tighter guidelines and regulations—from Congress, FDA, PhRMA, ACCME, state governments, the Institute of Medicine and others—it's difficult to see where the good news might come from in 2009.

But there's always room for innovation. 

This month we made our annual picks for our All-Star teams of the year. As usual, all of our winners were chosen by the MM&M editors, according to a variety of criteria, including but not limited to growth, innovation, creativity, market share, revenue and challenges overcome.

Despite rigorous research and discussion, there was obviously an element of subjectivity to our choices. But among the things we wanted to recognize in particular was a fresh and innovative approach to communications, particularly as it relates to trends in social media.

Take our Company of the Year, Johnson & Johnson, whose decentralized structure has fostered innovation, with many of its companies having “dabbled in digital media where few of their competitors have dared to tread,” according to Matthew Arnold in his article. What's more, these adventures have “yielded valuable insights about how pharmas might use social media.”

J&J's online ventures include Facebook pages, a dedicated YouTube channel and, of course the well-publicized corporate blog, JNJ BTW.

Moves of this kind have, to date, been viewed by most pharma companies as cavalier at best and possibly even foolish at worst, largely because of the legal implications involved with the reporting of adverse events and the purporting of off-label indications. Not to mention, of course, exposure to potentially damaging criticism from users, hearsay or otherwise.

But pharma can no longer ignore the shear momentum of the social media movement. For example, TechCrunch recently reported that, globally, Facebook is catching up to Google in terms of the number of visitors and the time spent on the site. 

Taking the plunge is not even about balancing opportunity with risk anymore. Rather, being involved in the conversation has become a necessity.

I'd like to wish all of our readers a happy, prosperous and innovative 2009.
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