Back in the early 2000s, I was head of commercial strategy at Millennium Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I remember saying to then CEO, Mark Levin, that we had an opportunity to define how the company vision, “Transcend the Limits of Medicine,” could be translated at the customer level.

This was a once-in-a-career role. I was able to surround myself with incredibly smart and forward-thinking people, to envision a future and create a strategy that defined “nirvana” for how customers and stakeholders would interact with Millennium — a company that had every intention of doing things differently across the board.

We interviewed customers, government agencies, firms that collaborated with our industry, and many others. It was an incredible time. Back then, biopharma was returning over 20% to shareholders (although the patent expiry “cliff” was in sight), the concept of oncology combinations was a new idea, and rare diseases were still rare, with few treatments in development.

In one aspect of the commercial visioning work, Colleen Moore, who worked with me (and still does!), brought in a cutting-edge consulting firm to guide a cross-functional team in conducting some futurist scenario planning.

This group brought in gurus from diverse fields including media, music, and technology. The goal was to challenge our thinking and force us out of our company bubble. Together, over multiday workshops, we created potential future scenarios for what consumers of healthcare — and, by extension, the pharmaceutical industry — could be facing ten years forward.

Much of what we predicted was spot on, including:

      • An expectation for on-demand information regarding personal health
      • A focus on trust and deeper skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry
      • The rise of intermediaries at both the provider level (mid-level providers) and corporate structure (retail clinics)
      • An increase in transparency — of pricing, tiers of options, and value expectations
      • Integrated, end-to-end solutions that focus on health, not just sickness

Not only did we learn a great deal, but this futuristic thinking informed our commercialization plans.

A Different Present and a Different Future

That future is today’s present! We face regulatory and commercial uncertainty, shrinking or fragmented financial valuations, increased pressure to “monetize the asset,” and ubiquitous technology in the hands of researchers, entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and (maybe most important) consumers of healthcare.

Our commercialization model has already changed to include more digital marketing, earlier and expanded medical affairs, comprehensive payer strategies, and transformation of the customer interface.

More and more, I find myself thinking about the next wave of the future, its impact on our commercialization model, and how we should prepare for it:

      • What happens to our defined commercialization continuum when adaptive clinical trials and rolling regulatory submissions achieve the impact we hope they will, bringing critical medicines to patients quicker and at a more reasonable development cost?
      • What happens to our customer interface when artificial intelligence provides a better and clearer influence on the next best treatment, far beyond the sales rep waiting in the office outside?
      • What happens when the body begins to harness the processes to cure itself, as cell therapies, the microbiome, and gene editing begin to suggest is possible?

These questions and more will shape our future, certainly. But we need to begin learning and envisioning today.

Conversations with Commercial Leaders

I first met Frank Dolan of Arsenal Advisors through a colleague, as The NemetzGroup team began to explore some of these questions to help our clients prepare for their future. Frank has launched a very cool venture in which he hosts a series of expert forums with commercial leaders, to dive deeper into the changing landscape and hear what they think.

And so, I guess what follows is a conversation with Frank about his conversations with others — so meta!

Three Common Questions

Sue, thank you for inviting me to join this e-conversation. Like you, we are interested in having deep, meaningful conversations with commercial leaders across biotech, pharma, device, and digital health, in various free-form platforms that allow people to talk to one another and learn.

Overall, and of the more than 1,200 interviews and interactions we have had at live events, webinars, and in personal conversations, the one common theme is that everyone believes their business problems are unique. They aren’t — the overlap is tremendous.

What is different, however, is the variability in the degree of interest and urgency in the executive ranks of these companies to have candid discussions to think, and then plan for what’s coming around the corner and further into the future. The pressure to deliver on today’s PPT deck or earnings call absorbs most of the mind space that could be applied to bigger strategic questions.

Here are the three most common questions emerging from the conversations we have with leaders from life sciences companies:

#1. Do we have the correct definition of customer engagement?

Marketing impact measurement in our industry has always been complicated. This is only going to increase as healthcare users evolve and consume information in more and different ways and from different sources (e.g., social media influencers).

Overall, many pharma brands are making the mistake of continuing to speak at patients rather than engaging with them. Engagement is the key to building trust (something that pharma has struggled to gain). The concept of “more ads or touchpoints equals more sales” may resonate with industry veterans, but you cannot bring that mindset to most digital marketing efforts.

Executive takeaway: Measuring impact engagement needs to include all the channels in which the customer (not the brand) consumes content, leave the IF-THEN calculations behind since engagement is multifactorial, and account for impact quality (one and done vs. multiple exposures that influence behavior).

Sue’s thought: An interesting corollary regarding engagement is the way political campaigns work day and night to engage with voters on social media. Our regulated environment prevents many of these approaches (e.g., peer-to-peer texting), but that does not mean it isn’t happening.

#2. How will artificial intelligence (AI) impact our company and commercialization efforts?

When you hear someone refer to AI as “trendy,” it usually means they don’t appreciate its power. AI offers incredible opportunity to move a business forward, faster, including:

      • Reviewing medical records for data points, patterns, and simulations
      • Reducing the time it takes for researchers to identify patients for trials
      • Diving deep into social media to uncover peer-to-peer interactions and data consumption
      • Understanding the implications of patient information-seeking behavior moving from keyboard search to voice

Across our industry, savvy organizations have intense ideation sessions to figure out how they can shape AI’s impact. Unfortunately, nearly everyone is way behind or just focused on R&D. On the commercial side, in particular, there may be too much reliance on the communications agencies and not enough guidance going in the other direction. Since successful AI will also require large integrated data sets, no one agency addresses a company’s full opportunity.

Executive takeaway: Companies need to develop a strategy for how AI will affect every corner of the business. Commercial should be part of those strategy sessions.

Sue’s thought: As commercial leaders, while we may not own this strategy, we need to keep educating ourselves to understand where it applies. As page #4 of this AI summary by Deloitte indicates, the top three benefits of AI are enhancing current products, optimizing internal operations, and allowing us to make better decisions. Closer to our industry, STAT now has a Health Tech newsletter providing excellent insights on new players and innovations in the life sciences.

#3. Are we as open to new ideas coming from within the organization as we are to ideas coming from external advisors?

We were surprised to hear that many executives are concerned with the lack of bold ideas coming from the internal ranks. Some organizations encourage edgy ideas from their vendors but (perhaps unknowingly) reward employees for maintaining a stable and conventional contribution.

This is a culture issue, not a company size issue. Most would say they want an open and agile enterprise. How many “shared values” also include continuous learning? It’s worth discovering how much the leader’s vision matches what team members believe is expected to occur on the ground.

Executive takeaway: It’s OK to be pragmatic by encouraging lunch and learns on future topics, encouraging reading, and encouraging experimentation in the business vs. just the lab.

Sue’s thought: The responsibility to have safe and engaging conversations about issues, opportunities, and concerns is a shared one. We all need the courage to speak up, and leadership needs to have the confidence to listen.


So what now? We know that the demands of today are urgent enough, let alone planning for 2029 and beyond.

Three Recommendations in Planning for the Future:

      1. Get inside your team’s head. Find out what they know, what they are thinking. They live in both the real world AND the bubble that is your company. These two environments can merge.
      2. Get beyond the castle walls. Pay attention to what other companies, industries, and disciplines are doing, saying, and writing.
      3. Think and talk about the future. If you agree that there are radical changes afoot, what are you doing/saying/discussing in your team meetings to plan for their inevitable arrival?

Let us know what resources and approaches you found to have the most impact in generating these types of conversations.