BMS’ Catherine Owen: Hybrid communication is here to stay

The company’s senior vice president for major markets (Europe, Canada and Japan) talks about the continued evolution of pharma’s approach to communications and commercialisation.

The core of Bristol Myers Squibb’s commercial business outside its home base of the US covers most of the large countries in Europe, as well as Canada and Japan. These 19 territories have about 4,500 employs between them and account for revenues of around $12,5 billion.

Overseeing all of this is as the company’s senior vice president for major markets is Catherine Owen. It’s a role that requires her to ensure her general managers are supported to lead their country’s business and it’s one she’s well placed for.

During a pharma career of over 25 years, she’s spent most of her time working across the commercial side of the industry, with stints in sales, marketing and market access, at regional and global levels. She recently joined the pharmaphorum podcast to discuss the evolution of communications and commercialisation and her work mentoring the female leaders of tomorrow. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation.

The industry’s always been an international one, but has pharma become even more globalised in the last five years?

As conglomerates merged, we started to centralise and understand that our commercial messaging needed to be more unified.

In the last five years [with] literally global media where decisions that we make in the US are pretty much real-time understood across the world, our communications teams have had to pivot very quickly to understand that. Press releases in 2000 were approved locally, because it didn’t really matter what you said, because nobody was really going to find out about it for a month or two.

Whereas now, we have to be very cognisant of everything we do and say, because obviously, it needs to make sense globally. That real-time information generation, which is what our industry is all about, has really fostered a whole new way of behaving commercially, broadly, but also very specifically in our communications channels.

With communications being so much more instant nowadays, has that made pharma companies more cautious?

Actually, I think it’s slightly the opposite. I think before, we were pretty cautious about the way we communicated, because it was written, and it was a one-time event. I think now, what we’ve realised is communicating in real-time is the way we have to evolve and so we’ve become more open to understanding that communication is a full-time job. It’s not one press release, it’s constant. We’re able to be a little bit more open to different forms of communication, different styles, understanding that we have to communicate differently to patient groups than we do to payers, than we do to governments.

How have you seen pharma commercialisation specifically change during your time in the industry?

If I characterise it into three main pivot points, the ’90s for us was all about carrying the bag, and the commercial messaging was very much directed to the physician. Obviously, I was in the UK at that point, but then came to the US and there was limited patient communication, even in the US at that point. Then as we pivoted into the early 2000s and healthcare started to change, globally, there was more patient cost-involvement, certainly in the US.

The patient became part of our mix, our communication, as well as payers starting to think through how they could rationalise, if you like, the access to health care. I remember in the UK, the birth of NICE and the whole HTA movement really started in the 2000s. We really had to think differently about the value of our products and the trifecta of communication, with the three Ms: medical, marketing, and market access. Then I think in the last five years, the globalisation of our industry, the rise of social media, the ability for people to understand very quickly when products are approved, when products are available.

The influence of patient advocacy, the influence of all kinds of other forces now might mean that we have to be so omnichannel in terms of our marketing approach. We’ve gone from unichannel, to trichannel, to omnichannel, would be my big reflection on marketing and commercialisation in the last 25 years.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted pharmaceutical commercialisation?

Oh, absolutely. It’s about the omni-channel approach that we have to have now in commercialisation. Making sure your messaging and your communication about your drugs, both efficacy and safety, are being clearly channelled through the different media on the different channels that we have.

Essentially, the pharma industry still has a strong reliance on our sales representatives getting out there and our medical liaisons getting out there and talking to doctors and being able to really take them through the data, because it’s complicated.

It’s a two-way dialogue about clinical trials, safety, efficacy, different patient types. That ability to have live conversations was obviously very quickly curtailed. We had to learn very quickly how to have those conversations in a different way with our customers and at different times.

We need to really understand that we’re not going to be able to go back to how we were, [and instead have] much more of a hybrid way of working.

What role do you think ‘digital’, in a broad sense, will play in the future in terms of pharma communications and commercialisation?

It’s going to play a much larger role. I think as it’s accelerated maybe by five or so years, if I was to guess. Either, we were going down the route anyway. Let’s face it, we’re all-consuming media, basically digitally, at our convenience when we want it, where we want it, on the device that we want it on and so we were moving down that path. I think the acceleration has really made us realise that we’ve had to speed up a lot of that and I think hybrid communication is here to stay.

We still have to understand that giving medical information to physicians is a process. It’s not a ‘one and done’. That’s fine and our commercialisation teams are very ready to evolve, because we’re here to ensure that our customers get the right information, so our patients get the right treatment.

Are there areas where you would like to see further evolution in pharma’s approach to commercialisation?

One of the things we’ve realised is the intersection of healthcare, government, policy and the role that pharma can play in global healthcare, which seems an obvious thing to say. I think the pandemic has helped us all realise that it’s very intertwined. What I’d like to see, and we are seeing, is governments now coming forward, instead of being a little bit adversarial and talking to us about drug costs and so forth.

The discussion’s changing a little bit, and from certain countries, it’s how can we work with you to drive investment into our economies, to build your manufacturing facilities here, to ensure that we’re attracting life science brains and thinking into our country? How can we work with you to really support a vibrant pharmaceutical industry which needs to be, thriving for our globe to ensure that we’re carrying on in the way that we need to in the face of not only pandemics, but chronic debilitating diseases that continue to go unchecked in many cases?

I’m looking forward to that evolving and ensuring that we can play a part together rather than feeling like we’re perhaps part of the problem. I look forward to us becoming part of that solution.

You also help the next generation of young female pharma leaders, how did you get involved in mentoring them?

It’s a part of my role that I really love. I think starting back in my career, when I was in the first five years or so in my career, I looked above me, and I looked up and around me to see leaders who I admired and leaders who were on a journey that I wanted to go on. It was important for me to have those people to talk to. As a young female leader in the late ’90s, there weren’t tons of women above me, but there were enough to help signpost the way. I really valued those conversations in a different way than my male mentors, all valuable, but that we had a different discussion.

As my career has advanced, I’ve looked to ensure that I’m mentoring women around me and coming up behind me, as well as men. With a particular focus on ensuring that women feel empowered to join our industry, realise how flexible it is and how many different opportunities there are for vastly different careers, from finance, to marketing, to sales, to market access, R&D, statistics, engineering, manufacturing.

Also then, I have a more formal role within our specific leadership development programs in BMS with a colleague of mine, Ester Banque, we lead our general manager development programme, ensuring that we’re developing our general managers of the future. We [also] have a diversity and inclusion development program, which I’m helping to sponsor.

What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?

I try to focus on a few key areas of advice when I’m talking to women. Obviously, it depends on their specific challenge. Some of the things that I think are important is thinking about your career in five-year spans and not trying to get too ahead of yourself in terms of planning. Ensuring that you think about not only your next job, but the one after that and what you need to be doing to be successful in both of those roles, which allows you to think a little bit more broadly about the experiences that you’re going to need to get there.

At the same time, I also like to talk to people about getting the right experiences. In most careers, there are experiences that are expected for you to move to the next level, but there are also experiences that are diversifying and maybe differentiating. We all are competing with people at a similar level, at a similar experience grade for that next job. It’s not just about ‘Catherine Owen’, it’s about ‘Catherine Owen in her competitive set’.

Who else are they talking to? I try to talk to people about making sure you’ve got 80% of the experiences that people are expecting, but maybe one or two experiences that are slightly different and actually differentiating and make you stand out. Have you done a role that involves a different country experience, a different technical area experience? I tried to do that myself and I found that to be quite a good blueprint for moving on and up, is those differentiating experiences really make you much more competitive at different points in time.

About the interviewee

Catherine Owen

Catherine Owen is the senior vice president of major markets at Bristol Myers Squibb, having joined the company in 2019. Previously, she was a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson and in her last role was president of immunology at Janssen Pharmaceuticals and president of infectious diseases. She spent more than twenty-five years with J&J and served as the first leader of the Janssen North America Culture Team. Catherine has an honours degree in pharmacy from the University of Manchester and a postgraduate degree in marketing from the University of London.

About the author

Dominic Tyer

Dominic Tyer is a journalist and editor specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. He is currently pharmaphorum’s interim managing editor and is also creative and editorial director at the company’s specialist healthcare content consultancy pharmaphorum connect. Connect with Dominic on LinkedIn or Twitter

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