In advance of the Wednesday, April 21, entry deadline for the 2021 MM+M Awards, MM+M sat down with jury chair Elaine Gamble, digital strategy lead for Otsuka’s CNS division, to assess how this past year’s work might look different from previous years.

Beyond more virtual engagement, Gamble said that the shared experience of the pandemic, which led to a broader sense of community, has given pharma marketers a new impetus: To express not only a brand’s core value proposition, but also to contribute to a broader sense of community and trust with target audiences.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MM+M: You got your start at Pfizer, after which came stints at Novartis, Merck and Sanofi. You’ve also got experience on the agency side. What would you say defines your career?

Gamble: I have a number of years of experience in pharma, much of that in omnichannel and transformation roles. I started out in pharma, marketing products that had smaller field forces and proving that they could be as or more successful without the traditional levels of support that we’re accustomed to having on the larger businesses. And then from there, my career has been defined by bringing new business models or optimizing what we currently do; driving synergies with the sales representatives; and using the beauty of digital and other omnichannel initiatives. It’s also been about bringing value and amplifying messaging, but also finding new ways to connect with doctors and patients in timed and contextual ways – being more in the moment with them and, through that, driving values.

MM+M: How did the pandemic speed up the industry’s transformation?

Gamble: The COVID-19 pandemic put more of a need on digital for the industry. Perhaps we’ve always known of its import, of having those synergies with the face-to-face channel and to amplify our messages. But COVID brought us another unique opportunity in that it was the primary way to get our messages out to our doctors and to establish relationships with them, especially for some physicians to whom we may not have had access. So through that, we’ve been able to show the beauty of digital, omnichannel strategies, leveraging customer satisfaction, as well as bringing value for our brands and delivering business impact.

MM+M: What is the industry doing really well right now from a marketing perspective, and where does it need to improve?

Gamble: What the industry is doing well is driving awareness of how we support the patient in all our advertising. You know, “If you have a need, contact us.” We’re showcasing the beauty of our products, but we’re also – as we always have – partnering with patients around having access to products and affordability. We’ve been doing a good job with that during COVID. Sometimes opportunities arise out of the right timing, and maybe the timing was more optimal for people to hear and understand the way we’ve always supported them but may not have been aware of. The opportunity is to do even more of that post-pandemic, when people are not as confined, might have less time, and it might be more challenging to get messages in front of them. Our opportunity is, how do we continue to be relevant and have awareness of our products and services post-pandemic when people’s lives may evolve? It’s a challenge but one we will embrace well. 

MM+M: COVID obviously put more of an emphasis on the need to engage doctors digitally, but how else has your approach to HCP engagement changed?

Gamble: From a customer standpoint, it may have raised their expectations and what they want from digital: “Speak to me directly. Reflect my preferences in what you present to me. Do you understand me?” So there’s more focus on taking it to the next level, because our customers’ expectations continue to evolve. I believe we have stepped up for that, but there’s certainly lots of opportunity ahead, too. 

MM+M: How has it changed the way customers engage with pharma?

Gamble: Due to the climate around COVID, in some ways our customers may have become more open to channels that they always were open to, but maybe in a different way. We saw this in their desire to have more community, or they may have missed the engagement with us one-to-one. Therefore, what we might have considered to be, “Oh, will, someone want to engage with you in that manner or different channels?” The answer was a resounding “yes.” Again, that’s because the times offered us more alternatives with our customers. They always were there, but they just went to a different level during this period. And it’s really exciting for pharma, this period where we’ve been front and center around the value we’ve always brought. Our physicians and patients understand it in a way that they might not have before.

MM+M: You’re referring to an improvement in public image?

Gamble: Yes, in how we’re viewed. Developing those vaccines in a record amount of time has allowed us to have – we’ve always been visible – but a kind of visibility that fosters trust and partnership in the pill and the excellence of the medications, as well as beyond the pill and changing and transforming lives. That’s why I’m excited to be part of this industry.

These awards are a terrific opportunity to recognize excellence, always have been, but especially during this period where there was an exceptional need for what we bring.

MM+M: Has social determinants of health become the new “beyond the pill”?

Gamble: It’s definitely had a very positive impact on beyond the pill. And when we talk about connection to health and medication, it’s about the medication, but it’s an emotional connection that transcends those practical areas. During this period where people are more isolated, with more of a spotlight on healthcare in many respects, it’s been a great opportunity for the industry and one that we have embraced well. And these awards are a terrific opportunity to recognize excellence, always have been, but especially during this period where there was an exceptional need for what we bring.

MM+M: Do you expect to see more wrap-around services – remote diagnostics, remote monitoring, telemedicine – entered in the Awards program?

Gamble: I hope so. I hope that we see a range of entries in these upcoming awards. And you mentioned remote diagnostics. The way we might have thought of it before is sort of as a task. Now, in these different times, it’s possible people would see something like that as a real connection, broadening beyond the functional. And so I do hope there are a number of entries in a range of categories, and I hope that people won’t say, “Well, gee, there are going to be so many entries,” that something that could seem, “Well, we do that all the time,” might not get showcased to a broader audience. You’d be bringing so much value to everyone to showcase the excellence of what you’re doing. So I hope that people, across categories, will submit for the recognition that we deserve now, across products and industries.

MM+M: Given that the MM+M Awards eligibility period is April 11, 2020, to April 9, 2021, there’s a good chance we’ll see virtual product launches, virtual sales meetings, the shift to virtual medical conferences and hybrid approaches reflected in the work. What else will you be looking for? 

Gamble: Part of our success during this period is that we were able to lean into virtual and still enable that sense of trust, community and connection among one another, not just in advertising but more broadly. And so our perspective is that a lot of that’s here to stay in that people, where they might have thought of one way to accomplish something, they think of multiple options. Now that’s part of our success. Coming out of the pandemic, people will perceive more options in terms of engagement, around product conferences, etc. And our opportunity will be how to find the right combination. You are being customer-centric and delivering what people expect, delivering options, or you use in-person and virtual together, with the right synergies and then digital engagement integrated with that. Coming out of the pandemic, a lot of things will be here to stay. It’s not to be viewed as a limitation, but rather an opportunity and another way to delight our customers, give them more options and to bring more value to our business.

MM+M: The pandemic was a universally shared experience that brought us together in many ways and often reinforced commonalities. Will that prompt you and other jurors to evaluate work differently? 

Gamble: These times we’re in have brought us together in many ways. In some ways, the pandemic reinforced the things that are common to all of us, as opposed to “We’re so different.” And what was common to all of us was that these were times that we’d never experienced before. We didn’t have as many options being home. The challenges that came with that enabled many more common experiences and foundation, and in some ways a broader sense of community that I hope will continue after and bring us together in many ways. Because this is the time most of us will never forget. The shared experience is something that will stay with us. 

What will be exciting is to see how effective were people in educating or driving awareness of their core value proposition, but also were there elements of it that contributed to that broader sense of community and building trust with your target audience? Who was able to do that well? This period in time offered us some unique opportunities, maybe for some categories more than others. But were there some in particular that stood out in terms of how they took what was a challenging time for many and made it something memorable where you established or solidified relationships, you built trust, you brought joy in a very difficult time for everyone? So that will be exciting as well as, as we look at the awards and the entries.

MM+M: Speaking of which, this year was in many ways so different. Does it require a new way to measure the success of a campaign? 

Gamble: You do have the baseline measures that we all have, that we all live by, that drive the business. But also a focus on those sentiment areas, like trust and relationship-building. Did you bring value via trust? What are some metrics around that? Engagement quality, and did you drive an initial response or did you really keep people engaged over time with your brand and your experience? Some of the other measures we’ll be looking at include customer satisfaction, how did you leverage the brand beyond tangible areas and to what degree did you do that? Definitely more of a focus on the sentiment areas in addition to the business, that’s really important. 

MM+M: Here in the U.S., the industry is known for doing lots of branded communications for Rx products and unbranded, disease awareness work. How might that work look different, and might we see a change in the mix between the two?
Gamble: We’ll continue to see a combination of both. But in our branded initiatives, leaning into the times, we were able to take a branded initiative but still make it very authentic, altruistic and partnership-focused, even under-branded. So those elements can co-exist – branded, but also measures that are sometimes more associated with unbranded. There will continue to be a good balance of both.