Part 1: An Unwelcome Revelation
Let me tell you about Marcus.
Marcus was tired. The good kind of tired.
He leaned back and stared at the messy flowcharts sprawled across his screen.
This wasn’t normal.
This was the kind of feverish excitement that his distant colleagues in drug discovery get when a good lab test or positive clinical trial data came through. The sort of eureka moments that never happen outside R&D.
Except this time, it was coming from Marcus. An executive in commercial!
His phone buzzed.
“Hey, Marcus. How’s it going?”
It was Sarah, the new marketing director. Her voice held a hint of excitement that matched his own.
“I think…I think we might have something here, Sarah.”
“Already? That’s fast, even for you.” Marcus could imagine the sarcastic grin on her face.
Marcus had been around a few years. He knew nothing moved fast. Sarah had come from consumer goods and wasn’t familiar with the giant avalanche of crap that was coming their way. Such new approaches just don’t sail through in pharma. But Marcus reckoned he’d figured a way around it.
“We’re going to fake it.”
“You heard me. Look, I know this is bold. We’re proposing that people are going to upload their genetic markers and volunteer to have their lifestyle tracked. We’re saying it’s going to predict their health futures and give personalised advice. And you know, compliance is going to laugh us out of the room. If they ever get to it… because my boss will probably bury it first.”
“I was afraid you might say that.”
“Yeah. I mean, none of these ideas came from our customers, they came from us. They’ll ask why we’re even bothering. Our HCPs could never have envisaged this, it’s totally different from what they’re used to. That’s why we need to fake it first.”
“OK…but why ‘fake’ it?”
“We have to show customers a finished product, even though it’s not yet built. In fact, we have to go further and show them a futuristic version that’s bolder than what we’re planning to build. We have to shock them with our proposal.” Marcus was beaming.
“I see. Because then we’ll get their real reaction.” Sarah was clearly switched on. “Funny you say that, because car companies like Ford do that all the time when they make concept cars. And then they learn how to build the real car.”
“Exactly! If we did this the normal way, it would take our customers 10 years to even understand what’s possible. But now, we’ll learn what we need to do immediately.”
Sarah’s face lit up. “And you don’t even have to build it.”
Marcus smiled. He was certain his idea wouldn’t make it past the suits in the conference room, but was encouraged by Sarah’s enthusiasm. It wasn’t often you found that in this industry. Although there had to be others with a similar mindset; there just had to be.
He opened his laptop and read the first message: “Pharmageddon”…
Part 2: Faster Horses
It was 11.03am. Sarah hurried into the room. Marcus had just started presenting the same story he’d outlined to her just the night before. He was wearing a grey suit with a grey tie, on a grey day in a grey conference room. His audience was even greyer. And yes, he started as upbeat as he could, but it was clear that he was fighting a losing battle from the start. The faces around the table were stony, unyielding, stern.
“I don’t think the market is ready for this,” came one predictable voice.
A murmur of agreement spread across the room.
Marcus protested. “Of course it’s not. That’s the point. We have to make people ready. We have to inspire them as to what’s possible. When they see the lives we could touch, the change we could spearhead, the potential…” his words trailed off. Sarah heard someone cough and suppress a laugh. Marcus had lost the room.
It was the same old story. Why bother? Why and try doing anything different? Following the usual path was always going to get ‘good enough’ results, but without the risk, so there was no need to change.
Sarah went back to her desk, dejected. If only there was a place where enlightened people like Marcus wouldn’t get shot down. Where there was a whole room full of Marcuses.
She slammed shut her laptop and headed down to the canteen for lunch.
Marcus was already there. Alone in the corner. Sarah slid sheepishly into the chair opposite.
“Well, no damn surprise there.” He sounded resigned. “But then, we knew they wouldn’t. I mean, will it ever be possible to do something new in this industry?”
Sarah wasn’t ready to give up. “It’s gotta be possible. Come on. Don’t throw in the towel just yet.”
“How would you know? You’ve been in this industry five minutes.”
Sarah decided not to answer directly. She paused and decided on a new tack. “This is just faster horses.”
“You know, what Henry Ford said. If you asked people what they wanted they would have said they wanted…”
“…faster horses. OK, I get it.” Marcus didn’t look up. “But our directors can’t see beyond horses. We live in an environment where they’re happy with horses! This place is a bloody stable!!!”
“Then we have to change the environment!” Sarah’s eyes lit up, remembering the email she saw last night.
“Change the environment?”
Sarah smiled. “Barcelona.”
“Barcelona. Pharmageddon. Trust me. A world away from here.”
Part 3: Suspicious Minds
‘We’re going to meet a lot of mini-Marcuses in Barcelona”, said Sarah. She and Marcus had just touched down in Spain. She was upbeat, enthusiastic about the next two days.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about”, he laughed, “but if you mean it’s going to be full of people willing to humiliate themselves in front of management, that could be interesting…”
Next morning, they were walking into what felt like an underground bunker, full of nervous anticipation. Some of the faces around the room seemed familiar, but there was a subversive quality to the place, as if everyone was complicit in doing something they shouldn’t.
“Hey, Marcus! Good to see you”. He recognised the voice and spun around. It was Dave Stern, managing director and Marcus’ superior.
“Dave?” said Marcus, surprised, “Didn’t know you’d be here.” Dave was a tall man who stooped under his own weight. He was drinking a cup of coffee which he held close to his chest and stirred slowly as he spoke. He was also one of the managers in that conference room, on that day. Marcus was both surprised and disappointed to see him.
“Didn’t think this would be your cup of tea,” Marcus offered gingerly, and then, “after you voted down my idea a couple of weeks ago”.
Dave looked uncomfortable. “Um, yeah, I saw the line-up, looks like a good event”, he said, looking at his feet.
“Shall we?”, said Marcus with a smile, gesturing at the entrance to the venue. Dave nodded and led the way under the grand ‘Pharmageddon’ sign arching over the entrance.
Two hours later, one of the exercises was in full swing. Marcus had moved onto the same table as Dave, along with eight executives from other companies. The session was about advancing ways of democratising patient engagement. With one eye on his boss, Marcus tentatively advanced his idea: “We’re all aware that the way we frame the issue determines a person’s behaviour…”
The next three minutes were a blur. Marcus accelerated into a passionate explanation of his idea, the first time since that fateful meeting a few weeks ago. From the far side of the room, Sarah could see he was gathering momentum. She grinned.
“… and by volunteering that information, those patients will have a different relationship with us”, Marcus finished, slowly opened his eyes, took a breath and waited for the same lead-balloon reaction he’d experienced in the conference room two months ago.
But it didn’t come.
Instead, his thoughts had ignited a frenzied discussion. Everyone started to unpick the idea, looking to refine it, to improve it, to adapt it. Only Dave remained silent, sat with his head down, straight-backed, hands on the table, as if caught red-handed.
After a couple of minutes, Dave decided he should speak up. “But compliance won’t like it. and you all know it”.
A pause fell over the discussion, but was met a couple of seconds later with smirks. “Yeah, compliance is important, but it’s not where we start. Let’s worry about that later.” It was an immediate put-down. Marcus struggled to suppress a wry smile.
Turns out that, at Pharmageddon, Dave was the odd one out. “About time,” he thought to himself.
Sarah had been right all along.
Part 4: A New Dawn
It’s been three months since Pharmageddon. Marcus and Sarah have been working tirelessly on refining their personalised medicine initiative, but the story’s not quite over yet…
Under the hum of fluorescent lights, Marcus scrolled through the pitch document, apprehension knotting his stomach. Sarah, ever the ray of sunshine, had been helping him to see beyond the roadblocks.
Since Pharmageddon, Sarah and Marcus had found renewed vigour. Even Dave was a transformed man, slowly planting the idea around upper management that maybe they’d been too quick to dismiss the original plans.
That afternoon, they were back in the conference room, the air thick with tension. The grey suits once again surrounded the table. This was their make-or-break moment.
Dave entered, but to their surprise, he was looking even more dishevelled than usual. His opening line sent a wave of ice-cold fear crashing over them.
“I’ve just received word… our main competitor is launching a new service almost identical to your proposals!” He threw a printout on the table, the headlines screaming the news of a ‘groundbreaking’ initiative poised to change the face of the therapy. Their idea, their innovation, as if stolen by another.
Marcus was white as a sheet, the weight of disappointment instantly heavy on his slumped shoulders. The grey suits in front of them were already starting to blame each other for failing to approve the idea months earlier.
Like everyone else, Sarah felt nauseous. But she couldn’t, wouldn’t let their vision die so quickly and easily. Not when they were this close. She seized the printout and began to read.
As she neared the bottom of the article, a smile once again broke out on her face. Because she realised this wasn’t the end.
“Guys!” she shouted above the noise. “Guys, shush. This isn’t so bad.” The room eventually quietened.
“What if this is actually the beginning? Our competitor is launching, but they can’t match us. We have something far more powerful.” She stood, her voice steady yet tinged with a fierce determination.
Sarah was thinking of another chance encounter she’d made at the Pharmageddon event. Someone she’d stayed in touch with. Someone who’d made her realise that she had something special. She turned to the screen displaying their concept, clicking through slides that highlighted patient engagement, personalised healthcare paths and the technical platform. “Here!” She stopped on a page entitled ‘Community Advantage’.
“We need to stop thinking like drug developers! OK, so our competitor is going to get to market a few months before us. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to win.” Quizzical looks appeared on the faces before her.
Sarah continued. “This is different from what we’re used to. This is about community, and we already have the community. They don’t.” Still, nobody stirred. Unsurprisingly, the suits couldn’t twist their brains to a different business model in a matter of seconds. They were used to working in an environment where getting to market first, with a superior product, generally meant a win.
“Last year we acquired a company. You bought it for the product, but it also came with a global community of patients, one that is engaged with their health, on that has already provided consents, and even better, Marcus and I have already tested this idea with them. You probably thought it worthless at the time, but this community could just be our trump card.”
Every eye fixed on Sarah, her luminous vision casting a new light, a new perspective emerging slowly. “And even better, our competition will do the hard yards to inform the market, and we’ll come in with a readily engaged group!
Marcus looked up from the table, a flicker of the old fire lighting in his eyes. Dave leaned back, the ghost of a smile playing on his lips. They all knew this was far from certain, and there was plenty of work still to do, but it gave them a fighting chance. In the face of near-failure, Sarah had ignited a beacon of hope, ushering a hesitant room into a future brimming with possibility and change. One that might never have been possible without Pharmageddon.