Overcoming Marketers’ Fear of Risk


Words by Louise Rogers

The pharmaceutical industry is notoriously regulated and under constant scrutiny by virtue of it holding the health and lives of populations all across the world in its hands. Fear of risk is an understandable part of the industry’s culture, but how can marketing professionals overcome their fear of risk in the pursuit of innovation and value creation?


The pharmaceutical industry is risky business, with an end-to-end success rate of 2–3%, cyber threats, and data breaches all taking place within countless international regulatory frameworks and on a backdrop of turbulent political and economic times. Needless to say, these challenges have created a risk-averse industry that peers out from behind its walls, waiting for others to pull the trigger first when it comes to making tricky decisions.


A culture of quality is crucial for patient safety, but this ideology has on occasion filtered through into other functions in which biting the bullet might be the best route to value creation. For marketing teams that find themselves staring down the gun, somewhere on the margin edge between the industry’s demand for security and long-standing appetite for experimentation, how can pharma’s marketers be supported as they make the leaps of faith that are required?


We need to take risks and try out the unknown

“I believe it’s due to the nature of our primary targets — HCPs,” says Haider Alleg, Global Head of Digital Excellence, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, offering his view as to why the pharmaceutical industry often lack a certain bravado to risk. “Culturally we have had time for launch preparation, always looking ahead to the next two decades. Now, we talk about two month roll-outs, and you stress the organ that is marketing agility. To change this and bring agility, I strongly recommend bringing in people from other FMCG industries. Diversity is important here.” Alleg comments on Ferring’s recent decision to structurally adapt; with the company’s digital transformation at play, Ferring is betting on the collaboration with an external ecosystem of partners, in order to bring value to its customers.


Risk, in the popular mind, carries with it somewhat of a negative connotation; conjuring images of everything from extreme sports to a high-stakes poker game. But in pharma, a culture of risk-taking is not intended to encourage erratic behaviour from individuals who might experience an epiphany one morning while brushing their teeth. Instead, an effective risk culture is one that allows departments and individuals to confidently take educated risks, where risk management policies and processes are in place to hold people accountable. The result: a workplace of openness and trust, allowing for the creativity and curiosity that is essential for breakthrough innovations to burgeon without being restrained by fear of blame or perceived failure.


And what does such a marketing oasis crave? In terms of structure, “marketing teams need to embrace a liquid structure both from a talent and function perspective,” says Eduardo Elorz, Marketing Unit Manager, Roche, regarding delivering meaningful customer experience. “Marketers can, and should, go beyond their product responsibilities to exceed customer needs. Most of the solutions that serve our customers are complex in nature, which requires great cross-functional collaboration. We need to forget ‘job titles’ and focus on how each member can bring innovation, regardless of the function they are in.”


In terms of engagement strategies, “it isn’t a race to see who gets the most followers,” comments Alleg on the Ferring’s social media campaign #projectfamily, an effort to spark conversation on IVF and birthing stories. “But more a question of are we creating a sustainable impact in those conversations? The authenticity of the messages, and the engagement of the community is a good measure of being on the right track.”


In times of uncertainty a helmsman will look to their captain’s command to navigate the ship through choppy waters. One of the most important factors in directing a cultural change such as this will be effective leadership participation, a leader who forms a new future that is not shaped by past circumstance and inspires others to build that future alongside them. “In my role, I feel more like a coach connecting the company with a world of opportunities out there,” says Alleg on his role in transforming the company culture through external collaboration. In terms of taking risks in new ideas and innovations, Alleg has two pieces of advice: “One - measure the adoption and scalability of any tactics brought to your strategy. If something in your funnel isn’t scalable, ditch it. Two - try, fail, and build your own definition of success. Sometimes one patient in a funnel that has changed their behaviours thanks to your campaign is enough to make it a success. Sometimes you need to reach millions to call it a win. No one can replace your own expertise.”


With high uncertainty comes the potential for high value, and with honest discussion and cross-functional collaboration, we begin to see how the industry are building their own wall of defence to protect against risk. “The other structure that needs to be implemented is a strong sense of purpose and an understanding that the biggest risk a marketing team can take is not meeting that purpose that will ultimately benefit patients,” concludes Elorz. Fostering innovation within the industry has always been a challenge; however, the resulting impact to patients and society will provide innovators with a return-on-investment that far outweighs the risks.


Now it is time for new, untested ways of engaging with customers, and taking these steps is risky, necessary