Photo credit: HollenderX

In many of the areas where pharma and healthcare marketing gets a bum rap, the finger-wagging is justified. For instance, the business isn’t exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when it comes to adopting new technologies.

Similarly, to call its embrace of social media “lethargic” is an affront to couch potatoes everywhere.

But the oft-stated notion that healthcare marketing has been slow to move on diversity and inclusion — both within its ranks and in campaigns targeting consumers, HCPs, payers, and everyone else — seems both inaccurate and unfair.

“Pharma may have been a little later to the party than other industries. But in a short period of time, there has been a lot of change and awareness,” says Nancy Di Dia (pictured above), executive director and chief diversity, inclusion, and engagement officer at Boehringer Ingelheim.

Merck’s VP, global diversity and inclusion, Celeste Warren agrees, adding, “There are many aspects of [diversity and inclusion] we do well as an industry. But with pharma, healthcare, and devices, you can’t look at it myopically. There are reasons, mostly relating to the complexity of the [healthcare] system, why pharma might be a bit behind.”

That said, the industry isn’t falling back on those reasons as a means of excusing the lack of female leadership at pharma companies. Rather, it appears to be tackling these issues head-on, whether through means expected (workshops on unconscious bias) or novel (speed-mentoring sessions featuring woman, black, Latino, LGBT, and other leaders).

There may be a significantly sized pharma or healthcare company that doesn’t have a chief diversity officer — or some similarly titled exec charged with issues around diversity and inclusion — on staff, but we can’t find one.

These individuals have been given plenty in the way of resources and support staff, too.

For instance, Di Dia works alongside a director and an associate director. The three have more than 40 years of diversity and inclusion experience across several verticals among them. Even so, Di Dia admits “some days, we are so stretched. We see the good, the bad, and the ugly, but the good far surpasses the ugly.”

Resources alone aren’t enough. Another reason Boehringer Ingelheim has earned a reputation as one of big pharma’s most diversity and inclusion-minded employers and marketers is the oft-stated and ongoing support of its leadership.

Di Dia points to two moments in particular she believes are telling. The first came during one of her first sit-downs with Boehringer’s C-suite. Her suggestions for “quick hits around safety and security for women” were immediately approved. Another came when the company became a signatory to the Supreme Court amicus curiae brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act — “without any hesitation whatsoever,” Di Dia says proudly.

“We want to stand united with our employees, patients, and customers. I’ve presented a series of options over the years and company leadership has almost never said no,” she adds.

A culture of attentiveness

Warren describes a similar culture of attentiveness to diversity and inclusion. When she assumed her current role in 2015, her first order of business was to embark on a listening tour. In regard to issues around diversity and inclusion, she found, somewhat to her surprise, some staffers “looked at it along the lines of ‘if someone else wins, I lose.’”

She immediately set out to “operationalize” diversity and inclusion by putting together a strategy that looked at it more holistically — “not just the numbers and representation of different types of individuals, which is important, but also how you leverage those differences to drive company performance. The goal was to get it into the bones of the company.”

Did she and her team succeed? “We’re not a utopian company by any means,” Warren cracks. “But we’ve done well at meeting people where they are, which is a part of this that some people forget or don’t pay enough attention to.”

Warren believes one of Merck’s strongest attributes as both an employer and a marketer is its facilitation of open, honest dialogue. “There used to be rules such as, ‘You don’t talk about X or Y at work,’ but it’s unrealistic to ask people to ignore external stimuli,” she explains. “You can’t think that what people are thinking or worrying about just turns off when they come into the office. We’re only starting the journey, but our leaders are having the conversation around having those bold, courageous discussions at work.”

There’s a similarly progressive mindset around diversity and inclusion taking hold at most midsize and large healthcare marketing agencies. While every network-owned shop is able to call on its parental unit for support around these issues, it’s surprising — and encouraging — to hear even the smallest firms have managed to find personnel, financial, and temporal resources to devote toward programs that promote diversity and inclusion.

“The future of this business requires that diversity and inclusion is something we think about and do every day,” says Singleton Beato, chief diversity officer for McCann Worldgroup. “It touches on the way we grow talent and service our clients. I don’t think it’s a choice anymore.”

Smart and creative ideas abound. In 2016, Klick Health created the #ASeatForAll virtual sit-in, through which participants posted seated selfies on social media to show their solidarity with the LGBT community. The effort was “based on Klick’s belief that work should be a comfortable place to sit for everyone,” according to an agency spokesperson.

The agency world’s most forward-minded companies have also widened their definition of diversity and inclusion. “We encourage everyone to think about it beyond gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation,” explains W2O Group president Jennifer Gottlieb. “The minds of the engineers, data scientists, and technologists who sit in our agencies are wired differently. You need to ask, ‘How do they fit alongside the creative minds who are the typical agency people? How about extroverts and introverts — how do we make them comfortable?’”

The big question

All this talk about certain companies’ commitment to diversity and inclusion is well and good. The best actors deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated. Still, it ducks the question that continues to be asked with more frequency than anyone wants or deems acceptable: Does the industry have a diversity problem?

The answer, per both the execs we spoke with for this story and others informally polled via email, isn’t yes — but it isn’t exactly a definitive no, either. Rather, most believe healthcare marketing is a far more diverse and inclusive place in which to work than it was even a decade ago, even if it hasn’t yet stamped out all traces of the industry’s prior leadership lean toward white dudes in dark suits, among other insensitivities.

Asked for her biggest-possible-picture take on whether pharma and healthcare have issues with diversity and inclusion, Warren refers back to her time working in the consumer products world for Kraft and General Foods and the “simpler direct connection” these brands had with their customers. “In consumer products, you’re dealing with the person who’s buying your food at the grocery store. If your strategy isn’t multicultural, you can’t sell your product,” she explains. “For pharma, the audience mix is quite different. It makes comparing it directly [with other verticals] an apples-and-oranges thing to some extent.”

Di Dia, on the other hand, believes “the whole area of STEM is a challenge,” particularly as it pertains to the employee mix. Within those constraints, she thinks the industry as a whole “is doing so much more, and much better, than it used to.”

She and her fellow diversity execs don’t have any plans to leave well-enough alone — which, depending on who you ask, might have been pharma’s move in years past. A decade or two ago, diversity and inclusion training, if it happened at all, was usually confined to a session or two every year. Now, these engagements occur on a far more regular basis. The commitment is ongoing.

“It’s front of mind for everybody,” Beato says. “It’s not just an optics thing, where somebody does it because they feel they have to do it.”

Pharma and healthcare marketers still have a challenging task ahead of them, which is figuring out how to embed diversity and inclusion into their organization’s DNA. Execs mention “organizational DNA” so often in this context, one wonders if the specific language was used at the last annual get-together of chief diversity officers.

Gottlieb and W2O have a set target: a minimum of 30% visible diversity across the company. “We’re going to use that as a benchmark to hold ourselves accountable and measure it on a regular basis,” she says. The company, it should be noted, counts five women among its seven presidents. “It’s good, but we still have a way to go.”

An inside activity

Warren hopes Merck will continue to work to ensure diversity and inclusion are not “something you do on the outside or as a separate activity.” As an example, she points to hiring practices and notes how thinking about and working toward diversity sometimes becomes an endeavor of its own. “When you’re hiring, you shouldn’t be saying, ‘We’re going to fill this role and, along the way, we’re going to do some diversity sourcing.’ No. These aren’t distinct things.”

As for Di Dia, she cautions other organizations not to get caught up in making a business case for more diversity and inclusion. “When somebody starts out by coming up with a plan, rather than conducting an assessment, that’s when you might have problems,” she explains. “You need to ask, ‘Do people feel they can succeed? Is their view of diversity two-dimensional — simply about gender and race and representation, or is it more about other dimensions of that sense of feeling and belonging?’

“If you’re in the role I’m in, or if you’re the CEO of a company, you have to be accountable for all of that. It’s not easy,” she adds.

Publicis Health’s Shannon Boyle on pharma’s diversity push

Global chief talent officer Shannon Boyle arrived at Publicis Health nearly six years ago, fresh off a long run at AstraZeneca. Here, she shares her thinking about diversity in pharma and advertising, screening in versus screening out, and the need for organizations to fight their own folklore.

On whether pharma has a diversity problem: There is not a diversity problem and there is not an inclusion problem. There is an opportunity to increase the diversity in our organizations. The problem is finding the talent in the marketplace – and by the way, this was my problem at AstraZeneca as well.

I’m going to compare big pharma to the advertising industry: The industries themselves were not diverse and the companies themselves had a practice of hiring from each other. I always describe them as “credibly incestuous.” When I got hired at AstraZeneca, I had to dumb down my resume to get my foot in the door. They didn’t hire from outside pharma.

On “fighting the folklore”: We need to fight the folklore of our organizations. It’s truly folklore – the wisdom has been handed down from generation to generation. We accept it because that’s the way it’s always been.

It was a radical thing for my predecessor here to bring me in. “What does she know about advertising?” I had to play the “I came from the client side” card.

Within the capabilities that are specific around our product and delivery to our clients, you have to be from advertising. Sometimes the answer really is “we need somebody with an advertising background.” But when it’s not, you can really run with it. Finance and HR departments – every company has them. Guess what? Those are very naturally transferrable skills. Every time you have an open role that has a broad capability, you better be taking advantage of that.

On “screening in versus screening out”: It’s an attitudinal thing. How does your recruitment process work? Well, you look at resumes and you eliminate the ones you don’t like. We need to think of the process more in terms of “we’re looking for reasons to hire candidates, not eliminate them.”

Every open role is an opportunity to cause change. It gives you the chance to say, “Okay, let’s talk about that role. Let’s dig in and understand the things that are truly predictive of success. And let’s try not to say the word ‘advertising’ in this conversation.” You start to build a muscle around that practice, and then it becomes a true practice.

The caveat is that you have to keep doing it for every single open role. My people here have it tattooed on their foreheads – “every open role is an opportunity to cause change.”

On retention strategies: Retention is an outcome of everything else we do. That’s why I don’t talk about retention, because it’s the measurement of everything else we do. Instead, I’m going to take time and make sure the language of our organization is inclusive.

What we need to do is take the mystery out of what great performance looks like and what it takes to advance through the organization. Another aspect is the importance of transparency in career progression. It’s about the “how” of promotions. When you talk about promotions, say how and why it happened. How did they get there? That makes promotion accessible to everyone. It helps people think about how they can apply themselves in a certain way.

On the mistakes she sees: Quotas are a mistake. In hiring, if you put out a quota for a certain type of person, companies will hire those people – but not with the right motivation. If diversity is the reason to hire somebody, you’re setting everybody up to fail. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, but more often you cause damage.

Instead, you should increase the number of people you are interviewing and change up the mix of how you’re bringing those people in. Examine your selection methodology and understand it. Unconscious bias? Of course there is. How do you create a selection methodology that gets you through that? It can be as simple as making sure your panel is diverse or as sophisticated as using psychometric evaluation at the start of process. You can’t just set goals for people without giving them a way to meet those goals in the right way.

It’s hard! That’s why I always have a job – because it’s hard and I know how to do it (laughs).