Life in the slow lane

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At the dawn of digital, almost every industry awoke to an early alarm call, alert, refreshed and excited by the possibility of figuring out how to do business in a new era of technology-driven communication.

But not every industry. Pharma, meanwhile, placed a pillow over its head and repeatedly hit the snooze button. Eventually, at the realization of the lateness of the hour, the industry gained some level of digital consciousness and crawled reluctantly out of its slumber, vision a little blurred, muttering a mix of protests, excuses and resignations to change. After the first cup of coffee, the intent to get with the program became more vocal and purposeful, and pharma had finally awoken to digital. The lip service was deafening.

That was then. So has anything changed? Is pharma catching up with technology or are companies still marketing like it's 1999?

At last month's ExL Digital Pharma conference in Philadelphia, two senior Sanofi execs—Joan Mikardos, senior director, Digital Center of Excellence, and Ceci Zak, VP business innovation—offered delegates an insight into the strategies and frustrations associated with attempting to digitize culture at a large pharma company.

Sanofi's internal digitization initiative has been ongoing for about five years, and Mikardos spoke of the importance of involving the entire organization. “We need to move from the feeling that digital is owned by marketing. We need to have digital acumen in all roles.” Furthermore, she said, it's important to stop thinking of experimentation as being solely the domain of early adopters. Hand in hand with that, failure must no longer be considered unacceptable but should instead be embraced as a learning tool. And social media must move from niche to integrated, and become a mindset within the organization.

All of which is designed to establish what Mikardos and Zak call a digital ecosystem, through which the company can implement with consistency, its SoLoMo strategy—that's Social (“We've got to find a way to play in it”), Local (“Gaining insights into where consumers are and what they're doing, which we've never done in this organization before”) and Mobile (“Changing the way doctors practice medicine and the way consumers get information”).

But while the urgency and the focus of this type of dialogue has clearly increased, at the end of the day, it still sounds like more talk than action. Lip service 2.0, if you like. So the answer to the question is: Yes, things have changed, and pharma is adapting to the digital environment, but it is happening painfully slowly. Rather than sharing strategies and successes, companies are still talking about what pharma needs to do and why they need to do it, and how far the industry is lagging behind. Zak is pretty frank about that.

“Digital allows companies to redefine customer service, something that's really lacking in pharma today,” she asserted. “Unfortunately, according to Google, we're about 24 months behind what they are looking for.”

Mikardos fired a warning shot about the consequences of organizations taking too little action, too late. “Companies rarely die from moving too fast and frequently die from moving too slow, and that is exactly what is happening to pharma,” she warned. “We don't want pharma companies to be in the same pickle as Kodak [which was too slow to move into the digital camera market]. We need to change the image from being just pill makers.”
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