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All things Pharma

Commercial innovation and the future of pharma

Healthcare leaders from Boehringer Ingelheim, LEO Pharma and Merck reflect on the rapid digital shift of the last two years, developing relationships and a modern marketing strategy.


Every year, innovators and practitioners from across the biopharma industry gather at the Veeva Europe Commercial and Medical Summit to exchange ideas and set a course for the future of life sciences. At the most recent conference in November 2021, leaders from Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck, and LEO Pharma – amongst others – discussed changing commercial models and how the events of the past two years will shape the next two decades.

Industry leaders reflected on the evolution of relationships between life sciences brands and scientific experts, physicians, and other stakeholders in the pharma ecosystem. In particular, they explored how their companies must adapt to new challenges in order to maintain strong connections with their customers.

Chris Moore, president of Veeva Europe, offered his observations from working with a broad spectrum of top pharma companies and up-and-coming biotechs, noting: “The pharma industry has achieved amazing things, especially in the last couple of years. In many cases, it’s had to rely on digital interactions to reach stakeholders during this time. The big question is: now that we’ve built digital relationships, how do we make them sustainable? And most importantly, how do we make them real and relevant?”

The move to digital modes of engagement has certainly accelerated over the past two years. Companies find themselves constantly reassessing how much to return to face-to-face meetings and where to rely on digital platforms for multichannel engagement that healthcare professionals (HCPs) often prefer, and what is the right balance.

Sharpening precision engagement skills

For LEO Pharma, it all starts with upskilling. The company has found that the skills of today’s representatives need to be dramatically different from the representative of 10 or 15 years ago. In Veeva Summit’s opening keynote, Monica Shaw, Executive Vice President for Europe, Canada, and Australia, shared that representatives need to be “curious, open minded, and agile.” Digital know-how is now a key asset to rapidly adjust and iterate engagement strategies.

Peter Guenter, CEO of Merck Healthcare and member of the executive board at Merck KGaA, doesn’t believe representatives will ever disappear, especially not in specialty care. “The pandemic is fundamentally changing the way we think about our go-to-market model,” he said. “I would describe it as a more customer-centric, face-to-face model – augmented by digital solutions.”

At Merck, this means adopting a more precise approach to HCP engagement. Guenter explains: “We’re enhancing direct face-to-face engagement with representatives, by calling in an ‘on duty’ medical science liaison (MSL) to virtually answer specific scientific questions during in-person meetings when needed. This hybrid customer engagement with collaboration between sales and medical actually helped us increase share of voice without increasing our number of representatives or MSLs.”

“Now that we’ve built digital relationships, how do we make them sustainable? And most importantly, how do we make them real and relevant?”

Driving personal connections through relevance and trust

With a focus on digital engagement in recent years, most Veeva Summit participants noted they are also looking to rebuild the human connections that came with meeting HCPs in person. Physicians increasingly require scheduled appointments times for representative or MSL visits, so there’s less physical mixing in waiting rooms or hallway chats and fewer organic, on-the-fly touchpoints.

Timmo Rousku Andersen, Boehringer Ingelheim’s Head of Human Pharma Regions, noted that, given these limitations, attributes like trust, relevance, speed, proximity – and being digitally empathetic – are even more important to HCPs. “By ensuring easy, fast, and super relevant engagements with our customers, we can still keep that emotional connection,” he said, during the event keynote.

Creating a 360-degree view

In a healthcare system that’s increasing in complexity, it can be difficult to identify who to build relationships with, or how best to do so. According to Monica Shaw: “The world has become more complex. There are more stakeholders at every part of the value chain, whether we’re talking about payers, customers, or how we support patients in understanding their disease. So key account management has probably never been more important than it is today.”

Andersen recommends creating a 360-degree view of each customer, which makes it easier for a life sciences organisation to coordinate across multiple medical or commercial teams. “We need to think much more fluently through a continuum of services, offerings, and interactions,” he noted. “Digitalisation allows us and our customers to better record, understand, measure, and demonstrate real value around patients. HCPs don’t care whether our business card says commercial representative, MSL, key account manager, or anything else. They just want us to solve their patients’ issues.”

“The digital evolution also impacts marketing strategists as they work to shorten campaign cycles”

From solo sport to team effort

This approach is changing the role of the representative and forcing field teams to rethink their reliance on personal relationships. Andersen feels that representatives now need to move from the traditional mentality of ‘my’ customer to ‘our’ customer – and from being a ‘friendly face’ to being a ‘relevant face.’

He said: “The representative needs to base each visit on everythingthe company knows about that customer. Then they need to share any insights they gain rather than keeping everything in their head, because that’s the mindset shift that will catapult us forward and make us more relevant.”

Marketing strategy

The digital evolution also impacts marketing strategists as they work to shorten campaign cycles. Life sciences companies acknowledge that they can no longer take months to build marketing promotions based on sales insights. Instead, organisations need to take those learnings and flip them into compelling new campaign materials in a matter of weeks.

Shaw noted that in addition to time-to-market, LEO Pharma is focused on delivering the right content to its customers. She said: “An interesting learning for us during our recent product launch has been the kind of information that people want. We’ve seen quite a lot of pull for specific content to service evolving HCP needs as they’re engaging with their patients in a digital environment. It’s all about being relevant and adding value to our customers, day-to-day.”

Looking ahead

The most important takeaway from Veeva’s Summit was that, whether in-person or remote, commercial and medical teams need to challenge the status quo to drive effective customer engagement. The organisations that reach the most HCPs in the next two decades will be those that provide relevant information through deliberate, timely interactions at every turn. 

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Emma Cooper
Emma Cooper
Emma is Digital Editor at Pf.

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