It’s been fascinating to observe technology become more and more of a foundation for pharma marketing, and not just in the form of digital media. We are now seeing new technology tools and processes that enable us to author medical content and get it approved faster than ever. Many of the new Agile and Lean software development processes are making their way into the pharma marketing world.
The Old Waterfall Method
Traditional medical content development, just like in traditional software dev, has tended to follow the waterfall method.
Key medical claims will get approved by medical, legal, and regulatory (MLR) staff before going to medical writers. After the writers are done and the promotional copy is finalized, it goes back to MLR where it gets reviewed. It’s not unusual for there to be more than a few rounds of revisions before it can be handed off to designers to develop the visual messaging. And then it goes back to MLR for review.
Only after the design sign-off milestone will it go to the interactive team to build the project… and then back to MLR. Traditionally, if even one page or section is rejected and sent back for revision, the entire marketing program will need to go through the review process again.
This can be a very long drawn-out process, often taking up to six months to develop and approve a simple website. Heaven forbid that new customer insight is uncovered mid-project that suggests a change in the words or images! This would force the process to start over back at the top of the waterfall!
Becoming Afraid to Innovate
This approval gauntlet often leads brand teams and their agency teams to avoid content or marketing innovation. They fear repeated revisions leading to missed deadlines and budget overruns.
Agencies learn to self-censor. They hesitate to bring innovative ideas to the brand team for fear of getting shot down. And brand teams begin to measure agencies based not on their creative but on their ability to get stuff through the regulatory review process quickly. This is a frustrating and dysfunctional arrangement, to say the least.
Agile: Rapid Prototyping and Testing
The agile software development philosophy has begun to introduce changes to marketing that are well overdue.Agencies, their brand teams, and MLR staff are starting to think more iteratively. The goal now is to prototype an approach or creative concept very quickly and test its “approvability” earlier in the process. This can greatly accelerate the process of getting approved content to market.
For example, one agile strategy - timeboxing and focusing on small increments – involves breaking a project like a new website into smaller components, each with a separate job number. Rather than a finished website going through the approval process to be judged thumbs up or thumbs down as a single entity, only the individual sections or pages that fail approval are sent back for revision. Meanwhile, the portions of the website – separate “jobs” – that have been approved don’t need to go back through review. This saves significant time and resources.
Another agile method is to use cross-functional teams during the development process rather than a traditional linear “conveyor belt” approach of development activities. In a digital marketing agency, this means engaging strategy, writing, creative and technology together from the start. The cross fertilization of ideas that is possible in a team environment enhances problem solving and can reduce errors and accelerate time to market.
Finally, agile’s “inspect-and-modify” approach encourages parallel pathing of development with shorter iterations or “sprints.” Building in shorter cycle times for key elements of the project avoids the “big reveal” at the end of weeks of work only to discover that the marketing program is not on message or strategy.
Implementing Agile in a Data-Rich World
I have discussed at length in previous blogs the power of data and insight to drive marketing strategy and build deeper customer relationships. We now face an interesting nexus in pharma where we’re beginning to capture data richness and now need a methodology for quickly turning this new intelligence into action. The next step is to adapt an agile philosophy that will allow for rapid prototyping and ever-improving iterations.
In every market, the brand that implements these development methods is going to get ahead. They’ll be able to learn about their customers faster, and quickly turn that knowledge into a better product or service.