As the leader of PR agency CRT/tanaka's health practice, Exec VP Brian Ellis has worked both with pharmaceutical companies and clients trying to target major pharmaceutical companies. It's a tricky but potentially lucrative vertical market that's heavily influenced by government regulations. But those regulations often open up opportunities for savvy marketers, Ellis said. As BtoB found out, this means big pharma may be more open to new ideas than ever before—but only if the ideas are proven to work.
BtoB: What makes marketing to pharmaceutical companies different than marketing to companies in other industries?
Ellis: The major difference is the level of market knowledge expected by pharma decision-makers and purchasers. They expect a strict attention to detail, especially when it comes to meeting legal requirements. The common theme I hear from pharma execs is that marketers need to show they can bring fresh thinking and creative ideas to the table, but they better have the regulatory end covered as well.
Unfortunately, most pharma companies use a preferred vendor system, and some are closed completely to new providers. If you can get your foot in the door, the growth potential is significant. But you better constantly out-hustle the incumbents because they have the resources to underbid you every time if they choose.
BtoB: What are pharma companies looking for from vendors?
Ellis: They are constantly working toward trying to find more efficient ways to conduct their businesses. But [much] depends on the individual pharma company. For example, Schering-Plough is now developing a new way to run global clinical trials. Pfizer is revamping its sales force, and others are trying to find ways to trim costs. If you can find a way to make a target drug manufacturer's processes more efficient, the time is right for you. Help in dealing with regulatory forces is always a need for them, too.
The FDA has requested $7.2 million in additional funding for the Center for Devices and Radiological Health to help with enforcement of safety-related concerns with medical devices. The FDA and FTC have also developed a new strategy to investigate Internet claims by makers of dietary supplements regarding health claims about cancer and diabetes. There are also calls by the Department of Health and Human Services for better oversight of clinical trials involving humans.
In many of these cases, the issues at hand are global. The bottom line is marketers need to understand that pharma companies are walking on pins and needles these days so they can't expect them to make big leaps of faith; they need safe and effective.
BtoB: How can would-be vendors convert marketing efforts into sales?
Ellis: The sales cycle is long, typically six to nine months. And if you're selling an enterprise- or brandwide product or service, you need to make sure you hit the budget cycle, which usually begins in August. There are hoops to jump through, including RFPs [requests for proposal]. Also, the strategic sourcing folks at pharma companies don't care who you are or what you are selling—to them it's all about cost. But the key to converting marketing to sales is really no different than it is in any other industry; it's all about relationships, relationships, relationships.