Some time ago, Marc Meachem had the opportunity to travel to South Africa. Over the course of his stay, he bunked with families of various ethnic and religious backgrounds: Black, English, Indian and Jewish, among others. What he learned during those few weeks helped shape his worldview — and, ultimately, his professional arc.

“It was fascinating to hear how they talked about their country and about those other groups. What I kept hearing was, ‘They’re not pulling their weight,’” Meachem recalls. “It created in me an awareness of difference and what it means.”

That awareness, and his culturally attentive work toward transcending those differences, have made Meachem one of the most respected voices in healthcare advocacy. As ViiV Healthcare’s head of U.S. external affairs, Meachem has played a pivotal role in the company’s evolution from specialist upstart to leader in the ongoing fight against HIV and AIDS.

Central to that growth has been ViiV’s willingness to engage with traditional physician audiences, but more essentially with members of communities disproportionately impacted by the AIDS crisis. “My core belief is that you can’t solve problems without involving the people most affected by them,” Meachem explains. “You can’t just walk in and say, ‘I’m the expert.’ That’s what sets our work apart.”

Featuring Taye Diggs and a host of creatives and public figures, ViiV Healthcare’s Me In You, You In Me initiative seeks to diminish the role of preexisting biases in conversations about HIV prevention. Image used with permission.

To that point, Meachem references ethnographic research conducted late last decade by ViiV in Baltimore and Jackson, Mississippi. The goal was to accumulate a wealth of insight on how to inform and interact with populations of gay Black men in both cities.

In the past, organizations would neatly compile their findings in a report, then hand it off to some other group for follow-up. ViiV chose instead to channel its learnings into As Much As I Can, a play designed to eliminate stigma around HIV and provoke more informed and candid conversations.

Initially scheduled for limited runs in each of the two cities, the play generated such a strong response that ViiV decided to stage it in New York City. In what Meachem calls “one of those moments of serendipity,” a partner at New York’s famed The Public Theater attended the performance; As Much As I Can debuted at the legendary Joe’s Pub a year later.

A report on the research results may well have generated interest and spurred action. However, the play’s success suggested to Meachem that a deeper level of connection was necessary to effect true change.

“With a click, you get somebody for a few seconds. With culture, you get people for so much longer,” he notes.

The talk-back sessions that followed each performance of As Much As I Can (and often lasted longer than the play itself) proved just as illuminating. Meachem takes particular pride in a response from a young counselor of at-risk kids who attended one of the Baltimore performances: “He said the play made him realize that some of those children surely must be gay, but that he didn’t have anything to offer them. It made him want to seek out resources.”

Meachem’s outlook was shaped by his upbringing in Southern California. He attended a junior high school that was notable for its diversity (“Filipinos, Latinos, Black people, Chinese people — just a huge range of voices and experiences,” he recalls). This, in turn, impressed upon him the importance of diversity, in terms of background and viewpoint alike.

“Diversity is our American reality and has been so for a long time,” he says. “What has changed is that, decades ago, this wasn’t viewed as a strength. We used to describe our society in terms of division — the majority and the minority.”

After receiving undergraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (a B.A. in French Literature and a B.S. in Economics) and an M.B.A. from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Meachem entered the world of pharma in 1994. At first, he found the industry to be “monolithic.”

“People kind of put a label on me at first — ‘Oh, that’s the finance guy,’” he recalls. “But I already knew what it was like to be the only Black man in the room, the only gay man in the room. The notion of ‘difference’ — I totally got that.”

Used with permission.

Meachem’s community-minded approach to his work was also informed by his observations of the early days of the HIV epidemic. “The media myth was that it was a white, male, gay disease, even though from the beginning it hit Black and Latino communities particularly hard .… Those communities of color weren’t treated with sympathy.”

Not surprisingly, numerous ViiV programs developed under Meachem’s watch have addressed these empathy and information deficits. Me In You, You In Me seeks to diminish the role of preexisting biases in conversations about HIV prevention, while Risk to Reasons is designed to reorient discussions around prevention and care for Black women.

Of the latter program, Meachem says, “The public health language around HIV doesn’t work. When somebody says, ‘You’re at risk,’ you don’t relate to it. The idea here is to give people reasons to think about HIV prevention.”

To hear ViiV’s VP, head of U.S. communications and external affairs Audrey Abernathy tell it, Meachem’s innate ability to connect with people distinguishes him from others holding similar roles in pharma. “Marc is a life-long learner who is always looking up and out for inspiration. He is extremely intuitive and brings a perfect combination of empathy and competitiveness to his work,” she adds.

That competitiveness rears its head when Meachem brings up the $30 billion spent annually on the HIV epidemic in the U.S. He notes that only 10% of Black people and 15% of Latinos are availing themselves of PrEP medications, and wonders why so many people with HIV remain undiagnosed or fail to follow through with treatment.

“There are companies focusing on people who have four TVs in their house that try to get them to buy a fifth TV,” he says. “You look at all the insight into human behavior that companies like this have — well, is there a way for us to funnel some of that into actions that are more important? … That’s ultimately our path forward, figuring out how to use these tools for the common good.”

Meachem would also like to see the industry do a better job on follow-through. “We need to be transparent about sharing results and especially about sharing successes,” he continues. “Over the years, it’s always been, ‘You come to us when you need something, then you go away without telling us about the success of the project or what the next steps are.’”

As for his own next steps, Meachem is thinking big. With retirement still a ways off — he notes that one of his aunts, aged 103, still lives by herself and walks without a cane — Meachem hopes to contribute to a broader shift in industry-
wide priorities.

“You still see these huge DTC efforts and the focus on individual prescribing physicians,” he says. “Is the goal more Rxs or are we going to put a dent in the disparities of disease states? Me, I want to be there when we say that we’ve truly ended the HIV epidemic for all people.”

Marc Meachem

ViiV Healthcare, head, external affairs, North America
November 2009-present

GSK, director, communications, HIV and oncology

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GSK, product strategy manager, Avodart

GSK, product strategy manager, global commercial development