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Practice Makes Perfect—Even in Marketing


Jascha Heifetz, widely regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time, was once stopped, on 57th Street in Manhattan, by a pedestrian asking, “could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Heifetz pondered the question for a moment, before looking honestly as the inquirer, “yes,” he answered, “practice!”

This might appear to have nothing to do with marketing in the Japanese pharmaceutical industry when first considered but bear with me!

The most common issue I have encountered throughout my career, plaguing both foreign and Japanese marketing directors alike, is the general lack of talent found in key department positions in pharmaceutical companies. This I have found to be just as prevalent a problem in domestic, as in multinational companies. But why? It’s not like marketing talent doesn’t exist in the world, and it isn’t that marketing talent doesn’t exist in Japan.

Over lunch with a business acquaintance recently, the conversation turned to precisely this issue. The gentleman I was eating with was the representative director of a major EU pharmaceutical giant and in his recent search for the ideal marketing candidate, he had turned his usual recruitment process on its head, and decided to focuss on marketing experience rather than industry experience. “Philip,” he said, “he simply has more experience and practice in marketing. You know, he’s a young guy, 35 or so, from outside the industry and within a short time, I guarantee, he’s going to be better than our traditional pharm sales and marketing guys. Why? Because he knows what marketing is.”

The Pharmaceutical Industry is different from other industries. It requires a specific set of qualifications and experience to enter into – one can’t simply waltz in with a Business Degree and hope to succeed. It isn’t an industry rooted in science, which is perhaps where our issues with marketing have arisen. Marketing requires a wholly different set of skills and while I’m not saying marketers can’t be scientists, or vice versa, there does not seem to be natural progression between the two. The traditional path of a product manager or marketing director, especially within Japan, seems to be to spend a successful decade as a medical representative or sales manager, before being rewarded for said success with a position at headquarters as a product manager. The result is a nation of pharmaceutical marketing managers, who are expert sales people, rather than expert marketers. This only partially fulfils the view that marketing professionals must have extensive sales experience and a deep understanding of the market from a sales perspective. Instead the outcome is a marketing force heavily weighted in sales, spending its time preparing ‘marketing’ materials for their ex-colleagues in the sales department and leaving half the picture unpainted.

This is perfectly summed up by the Marketing Director of Vaccines for Pfizer Japan, James Feliciano, who explained, “In my experience in Japan, the result of having too many sales-orientated marketers, is there is a tendency to jump straight into tactics, instead of thinking about the bigger picture – of where your product is and where you want it to go.” The people entering marketing departments from the field, simply have not been trained in managing commercial strategy for new products, positioning, pre-marketing and launch plans. “Unfortunately, a lot of forecasts are simply ‘straight-lined’, looking at historical sales,” continued Feliciano. The problem is they know too little about coordinating with global brand teams or providing strategic direction to development teams to shape the target product profile and life cycle strategy.

So, what can the industry do to break away from this cycle?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his eye-opening book ‘Outliers’, and Matthew Syed, in his equally illuminating, ‘Bounce’, both discuss the myths surrounding our preconceptions of talent when achieving success and instead describe power of practice, lending countless inspirational examples to what it actually takes to be really great at what you do. One particular example that stood out to me, was that of a study by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson (Syed, Bounce), a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and widely recognized as one of the world’s leading theoretical and experimental researchers on ‘Expertise’. In his study, Ericsson took three groups of violinists from one of the top music academies in the world. The first group was the top tier musicians, considered to be in the best 5% of the school, the second group was considered to be ‘extremely good’, and would be happily accepted into a professional orchestra, the third group was made up of those students studying to be music teachers. The three groups came from remarkedly similar musical backgrounds when they started at the academy, but what separated them at the time of the study was the huge disparity between the number of hours the students practiced. The first group on average had practiced for 10,000 or more, the second, around 8,000 and the third had in comparison, only practiced for 4,000 hours. That’s a whopping 60% difference between the first and the third group. The research also lends itself to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000-hour rule’, he outlines in ‘Outliers’, as the amount of time one must put into something to reach true expertise. The fact of the matter is, marketers in Japan’s pharmaceutical industry just don’t have enough practice to be considered experts in their fields, their 10,000 hours is in Sales, not Marketing!

We have been throwing these people in at the deep end, expecting that our star salesperson will instantaneously transform into one hell of a marketer, without giving them the essential education, time and practice. But by the same token, can we expect the answer to be as simple as recruiting young talent into the marketing department and expect ten years and 10,000 hours to miraculously turn them into our solution? If only it were that simple!

However, excellence is not just a product of having the time, it is the product environment, coaching, training, leadership, being challenged in the right way, and many other factors. Feliciano preaches a ‘bottom-up, patience-based’ school of thought when he approaches forecasting. He creates an environment where his team can foster and hone their skills, which allows them to learn and proactively impacting their business at the same time. This is not unlike Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of structured spontaneity he discusses in his book, ‘Blink’. Gladwell uses wide ranging examples to illustrate his point, from basketball, to improv actors, to war games, but where the success of each of the players, in these wildly different arenas, is down to practice. They have thoroughly rehearsed, practiced and adhered to a set of predefined ‘rules of engagement’ that they can then access through rapid cognition, under the right conditions for spontaneity.

So, who should we be looking at to change the game in the marketing departments of Japan’s pharmaceutical industry? The answer doesn’t lie with one person or group, it lies in the harmonious collaboration of the entire industry. Companies cannot hope to achieve their product positioning goals, without the right people in place, and recruiters aren’t able to place marketers in companies that can’t support their individual goals. We all need to understand that our future marketers aren’t made overnight, but need time, experience, mentoring and training to develop the necessary awareness and skills and we need to provide the right conditions for that to be able to happen. Whether they are marketers transitioning into the industry, or they have been in the industry for a long time and are transitioning to marketing, they will all need ongoing support and the chance to practice their craft. Afterall, practice does make perfect, so it is probably a good place to start!

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