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Encouraging New Thinking in Strategic Planning

Published on 12/04/07 at 05:53pm

How many pharma marketers, faced with the annual chore of writing a strategic plan, have decided not to take the risk of injecting new thinking into next years plan, but have instead decided to stick with the tried-and-tested thinking which appears to have worked in the previous year?  

If you are guilty of this, you are not alone  but in doing so, you are taking a bigger risk than you may realise.

Too often, the process of strategic planning takes the 'safe' route of doing more of the same.  This can be for a number of reasons - including laziness - but the most common is sticking with what you know, playing safe and taking the route of what is, on the face of it, the lowest risk.

But this approach is actually hazardous, because low-risk can mean low initiative, as it tends to exclude new thinking.  And it is this which can often break a brand out from simply plodding along.  Only when the market is not changing is there an excuse at all for such a 'same-old' approach - and there is not one part of the healthcare world where the market is standing still.  So why are so many strategic plans?

If it ain't broke

If you take a look at most pharma industry strategic plans, there is generally little real difference between current plans and those from three years ago.  Yes, there are some changes, but it is very much tinkering at the margins.  Indeed, I have actually come across so-called strategic planners who simply indulge in a little cutting and pasting to change some dates, and hey presto, this year's plan is complete.  

Difficult to believe, but depressingly true. Why is this?  The answer is that too many marketers in our industry try to play it safe, taking the view that being risk-averse is the best way of surviving in a world where new thinking can sometimes be viewed with suspicion.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it runs the old saying, which translates into: last year's plan worked, so let's carry on with doing the same thing.

But the truth is that this approach is anything but safe.  Can there really be anyone working in pharmaceutical marketing who really believes that the market is standing still?  We are in an environment of constant change (and if we're honest we always have been), but that change is moving at a faster pace than ever before.

Although this change might not match some of the volatility seen in some consumer markets, comparing the marketplace today with that of just a few years ago shows marked differences.  The problem is that, in general, pharma marketers will only change what they are doing when they see a significant, sudden change in the market - for example the launch of a new competitor.  Strategic thinking shouldn't take this reactive approach; it should evolve with the marketplace and so should our plans.

Plan to Succeed

So why is getting the strategic plan right so important?  To some extent, if you need to ask this question you shouldn't be in marketing at all, in this or any other industry.  But even otherwise competent marketers don't always realise just how important planning is in achieving success in the market.

There's little doubt that some view the planning cycle as a chore, mainly designed to keep senior management happy.  But a well-crafted plan actually makes the marketer's job easier, clearly identifying objectives, breaking them down into manageable chunks, and giving a framework for measuring success.

Equally important, of course, is the role of the plan in making a case for the allocation of the necessary resources to achieve those objectives, in the face of conflicting bids from elsewhere within the company.

A well thought-out and written plan will enable the marketer to have a dialogue with management to help them understand the issues, the solutions, and the resources needed.  Crucially, it will enable senior management to look at the risk-benefit balance, and decide if it warrants allocating the resources requested.

To do this, they need to know not just that the proposed strategy has worked in the past, but if it could work better, and will continue to work in the near to medium future.

Unfortunately, too many marketers don't know what works and what doesn't, and this stems from a lack of understanding of how customers make their prescribing decisions, and how we truly compete in the market.  In other words, good strategic planning needs sound insight - and this means constantly looking afresh at the market, and ensuring new thinking is undertaken based on a true understanding of customers and why they do what they do.  Its obvious, really, but still relatively uncommon.


Perhaps one of the reasons that pharma marketers appear to be so risk-averse is that they don't truly understand what drives prescribing behaviour.  If a particular strategy appears to work, there is often a worry that changing it with a view to making it work better might cut out the bit which is delivering results.

This is in part understandable - but the key is not to be conservative and unchanging - it is to build a better understanding of why customers make the decisions they do.  That way, new and creative thinking can be based on sound foundations, and any risk-taking becomes calculated and, consequently, less hazardous - and far more likely to yield results.

Too many people in our industry don't really know what the steps to success looks like, so measuring it becomes nigh on impossible.  In that case, how can they be sure that their plans are sound, other than by sticking with what they know, and what has worked in the past to deliver (the best?) results?

Unless you understand how prescribing decisions are made, you can't measure how successful you are being in influencing those decisions.  In too many of the plans I see, the criteria for measurement are based on input and/or activity measures, rather than output or business gain measures.

New thinking in strategic planning needs to be driven by new behaviour from customers.  The key is having the insight in what is driving customer change.

It's no good simply looking at historic behaviour, based on simple data.  That will only tell you what has happened, whereas planning is all about looking ahead to what is about to happen.  To be able to do this as accurately as possible means looking at the drivers behind the figures, and understanding what trends will continue into the period being planned for.

That in turn means that the marketer needs to think about three things: where business is currently coming from; how the customer is changing; where business will come from in the future and therefore, what he or she needs to do differently.


Because this whole process involves making judgements about the future, there is an element of risk involved.  But it's vital to emphasise that in this context, 'risk' and 'hazards' are two different things.

Risk is the basis of enterprise, but successful entrepreneurs understand that they must do everything to minimise uncertainty, so that any risk is taken on a calculated basis.  That doesn't mean always playing it safe and taking no risk at all.

Unfortunately in the pharma industry, there is too often a reluctance for individuals to stick their heads above the parapet, sometimes exacerbated by a corporate 'blame' culture.  As we know, this can stifle creative thinking, and lead to stagnation and paralysis - which is why it's so important that marketers are given both the skills and the encouragement to undertake new thinking.

That is very different to reckless risk-taking.  There is a middle ground between stultifying risk-aversion and reckless, gung-ho chancing.  It's called calculated risk, and it's based on true understanding of the market.

Take a look at any truly different and successful pharma marketing campaign.  It's likely that it will stand out precisely because it has dared to be different.  However, if that daringly different approach is based on customer insight, and sound knowledge of the market, it's not really a risk at all.  It just looks so to the uninitiated. In fact, it's far more risky to do the same-old, tried and tested things based on no insight, even if at first glance this appears to be the safe option.

Do Different

So how can we encourage new thinking during the strategic planning process?  How can we convince marketers that they need to 'do things differently', and break away from the cycle of simply repeating what has come before?

This change in mindset has to come from managers, who must challenge their teams to think in a different way.  The way to do this is to give them the skills to gain real insight into the marketplace, so that they see for themselves the changes in customer behaviour and prescribing drivers - then the need to adapt plans and make them evolve will become self-evident.

It's not about teaching them to write better plans.  It's about equipping them with the ability to gather the right data, to analyse that data to provide the right information, and then to translate that information into genuine insight.

We do have a tendency to over-complicate the process.  Good marketing comes from talking to customers and new thinking doesnt have to be radical  it can be as simple as reflecting changing attitudes in the market.

Creative or Methodical?

It has been said that strategic planning is an oxymoron, because strategy is about creativity, and planning then grinds that creativity out of you.  This is more false than true.  While there is a grain of truth there, the balance between creativity and process is possible to achieve - provided that we accept a relevant definition of creativity in this context.

It is a fairly commonly held view that the research that underpins the process of gaining market insight is the 'uncreative' end of marketing, and that its rather disciplined approach tends to stifle creative thought, which many marketers still view as the lifeblood of their profession.

But in fact, a sound understanding of the market can create a structure in which that creative thought can be channelled, ensuring that it translates that understanding into winning strategies which will help achieve the objectives outlined in the plan.

If this sounds like an uncomfortable attempt to inject some science into what many view as the 'art' of marketing, then perhaps it is - and I don't apologise for that.  In all areas of marketing, and not just the traditional 'creative' areas of marketing communications, a balance of creativity underpinned by a methodical, analytical approach is called for.

At the strategic planning stage, this combination is vital.  Get the critical decisions wrong at this stage, and no matter how much creativity is injected at the tactical stage, you are doomed to failure.

New Thinking

If pharma strategic plans are to deliver the continuing success for the industry, then they require a massive injection of new thinking, based on a sound understanding of our changing marketplace.

Too often pharma marketers, on approaching the task of writing a strategic plan, take the view that there has to be a very good reason to change what has come before.  I would argue that the opposite should be the case.  

Change should be the default position; planning for the same again should only happen if there is a compelling reason for it.  Playing safe, and/or a lack of understanding of the market, should play no part in the process.

Often, the marketers who are most admired by their peers are those who are prepared to go out on a limb, who are perceived as risk-takers, who are regarded as 'thinking outside the box'.

Their success is certainly based on the willingness to embrace the new, to explore innovative ways of achieving their objectives.  But the common denominator which binds them all is that their perceived risk-taking is firmly footed on an extensive knowledge and sound understanding of their customers.  They recognise that their markets are constantly changing; they take the time and effort to understand what is driving those changes; and they incorporate this into their new thinking when they are planning.

It's time for pharma marketers to follow their lead.


The Author

Dr Paul Stuart-Kregor is Director of The MSI Consultancy.  He can be contacted at; alternatively, visit The MSI Consultancy website at

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