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Past Meetings

March 20, 2012
The Evolving Sales Force and its Implications for the Marketing Mix: What We Can Learn and Not Learn from Other Industries


Jacques Gravel, President, Wishbone Management
Jacques Ferragne, Sales Director, Bristol-Myers Squibb

A Hiker Comes to a Fork in the Road…
Which way to the truth? Who can you believe?

Smart money is on Jacques Gravel and Jacques Ferragne, who, together, presented an historical perspective of where the pharma industry has come from and where it needs to go to ensure its future in the marketing mix. As an industry faced with mounting challenges, Jacques Gravel pulled no punches by asking: “Is the pharma sales force model broken?” Yes, he went there. And by questioning the current situation, he presented an informative and ultimately hopeful case study of an industry at a crossroads that is ready to, as would the proverbial physician, “heal itself”. Where is the buyer (physicians) and seller (pharma companies/reps) relationship going? Depends on which path you choose to follow. This fork in the road has the well-worn branch beaten by the status quo, with its supporters championing the belief that if it worked yesterday, it will work today.
The choice of inertia.

The other branch requires the hiker to take a small leap first, then blaze their own trail not knowing whether they will find peril or opportunity.
The choice of the pioneer.

The March 2012 PMCQ dinner meeting was introduced by Joseph Atallah, respected Director of Scientific Operations at Novartis and vice president of the PMCQ. The Bristol-Myers Squibb -sponsored event was guest moderated by the well-regarded Nichol Pelchat, Product Manager at BMS and Board Director at the PMCQ.

The Enemy of my Enemy Is My Friend
Why is good the enemy of great?

Consider that quote (from Jim Collins’ book “From Good to Great”) for a minute and relate it directly to yourself, your colleagues/employees, and your business. Are you good, or are you great? Is your business good, or is it great? What about your message? Mediocrity breeds complacency. While nobody can be perfect, everybody can be great. And really, if you can’t be great at something then why do it at all? Some people are content with being good enough. But when good is no longer good enough, then it takes some drastic measures to make the leap necessary to create a great company or industry, not just a good one!

Jacques Gravel developed this presentation not to create panic, hold a bashing session…not even to be the one to provide solutions. He did so to create a sense of urgency and get individual companies to look at the brutal facts. By comparing and contrasting the pharma and consumer packaged goods (CPG) industries—in both of which he has expertise—Jacques was able to provide some unexpected insights into pharma’s crossroads. Using Loblaw’s as an example, he illustrated how the “name” brands have been given a real run for their money by the high quality house brands.

The State of Our Art
How do we develop the balance between art and science?

By listening to what we are-and aren’t-hearing from the buyers (physicians) and sellers (reps).Focus groups among the buyers have shown that while they appreciate the sellers’ knowledge, friendliness, respectful manner, and cleanliness (!), they are less enchanted by those who show up with no samples, nothing new to say, biased information/bashing of competitors, surprise visits, high turnover rates, and pushiness.

If companies and their representatives want to keep up, or better yet, stay ahead of the game, they must reconcile the old way of thinking with the new. The old way focused such principles as sell volume and distribution, creative merchandising, and building goodwill. These are good. But they’re no longer great. The rep success story of the future will be based upon thinking about productivity, not job protection; welcoming technology (e.g., social media) to create momentum; always coming up with a unique selling point (USP); and recognizing that the field force is the most powerful tool in the marketing tool box.

Rise to the Challenge
Is the future of pharma protecting pharma from the future?

Don’t allow our industry to become a victim of marketing myopia! Jacques illustrated this point with various non-pharma cautionary tales, such as Kodak, Xerox, Yellow Pages Group, and Research in Motion. All have suffered from a fatal or near-fatal lack of willingness to confront their companies’ brutal facts of their position and future in their respective industries. By contrast, other companies have had the foresight to read the writing that the future has furiously been scribbling on the wall, faced some painful truths, and met the challenges head on. Walmart dropped their beloved greeters and rose in profits, while IBM sold their PC division to Lenovo, but bought the PwC consulting division to stave off inertia before it became problematic.

Don’t wait for the future to come to pharma; pharma has to bring the future to their customers. Challenge the status quo. Shake off the traditional comfort zone. Or, as Jacques said: “The doctor’s office is your shopping experience playground—think differently!

Let the Field Force Be with You!
Yes, I went there

But it’s true. Accepting this different way of thinking is the first step to breaking away from the ties that bind…and gag. The old consumer-era style of marketing must be replaced by the new way of the relationship era. The winning way.

Subtle shifts in messaging will mean big opportunities for those with the foresight to embrace these changes. For example:

  • Old Objective: Sell More vs. New Objective: Build sustainable relationships
  • Old Strategy: Interrupt and persuade people vs. New Strategy: Engage people
  • Old Starting Point: What the brand does vs. New Starting Point: Why the brand exists
  • Old Content: Present the brand positively vs. New Content: Present the brand authentically

Jacques Ferragne illustrated the reality of the Canadian pharma marketscape as having shifted from solo practice to group practice; from multiple independent pharmacists to pharmacy banners; from hospitals and provinces rapidly reimbursing the products to hospital buying groups and provincial tenders. If the playing field has already changed, then so must the players. Enter the field force concept.

Learn from the Cautionary Tales of Other Industries
Or, as James Joyce said: Mistakes are the portals to discovery

Jacques Ferragne pointed out that this situation is not uncharted territory. By looking without, we can gain insight within. By taking a look at the path of the CPG industry, it becomes clear that the pharma sector is following in CPG’s footsteps. As has been proven throughout time: those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

As illustrated with the failings of certain CPG players, there are similar echoes happening now in our industry:

  • Technology has made it increasingly difficult for the reps to bring value to our customers
  • Customers are regrouping, thereby increasing their “buying power”

Where we can learn from the missteps of others is by asking ourselves how we can create value? It is premature to talk about profit when it’s tough to bring value. In facing the patent cliff, the pharma industry has reacted by cutting down on the number of reps, which is precisely what the CPG sector did. How can we make sure the similarities end there?

Jacques Ferragne sees a clear need to define the pharma rep of the future. A quick Web search showed a very similar characterization of CPG and pharma reps, so how do we differentiate ourselves? Maybe we don’t have to, especially if we can benefit from this comparability. Is tomorrow’s pharma rep the CPG of today? Perhaps they are one and the same.

In the pharma worldscape, one might think this spells a grim picture for the Canadian pharma office. However, rather than head for a doomsday scenario, how about we appreciate our relevance and prospective benefit by seeing what we can do for our industry? Jacques Ferragne sees that, rather than being swallowed up, the Canadian sector has a potentially invaluable role by becoming the sales and marketing offices for the global industry.

According to Jacques Gravel, pharma has been in a type of cocoon for some time; not exactly resting on its laurels, but seeing itself as immune to some of the pitfalls of other industries. While fashion, burgers, technology are well represented on a list of respected industry leaders, life-saving pharma is nowhere to be seen. It’s time to change this perception of such a valuable contributor to society, to burst the safety bubble, and make a controlled landing in the hearts and minds of our industry, as well as those of our customers. Maximize the use of your sales force, and you will maximize the message that needs to get out there.

Your Mission
And really: how can you not accept it?

The path is yours for the taking. Become a trailblazer or be trod upon. Jacques Gravel has some simple tips for taking control:


  • Engage or get out of the way. Take charge, or someone else will
  • Be the leader of constructive changes, not the victim
  • Confront your organizations with brutal facts
  • Define your field force USP
  • Think “shopping experience”



The time for talk is quickly disappearing; it’s time for action. So, really, the only thing left to ask yourself is, “What will I do about it? How can I prevent myself, my Canadian office, and my sales force from becoming rapidly depreciating assets?”

Tara Mitrovka
Medical Writer/Editor
Editcetera Writing Services

Cell: 514-886-6565
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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

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