I attended EXLPharma’s “Search Engine Marketing for Pharmaceuticals” conference yesterday and sat in for the two “keynote” presentations made by representatives from Merck and AstraZeneca. In this post I will focus on Ruth Desmond, PhD, Merck’s Executive Director, Global e-Marketing.

Dr. Desmond is a bit of an anomaly in several respects.

First, her background is R&D starting as a research chemist and then as a manager of international regulatory affairs. I suppose a lot of people migrate from the research side of pharma to the dark side of “commercialization” (ie, sales and marketing).

It’s refreshing to see someone like Dr. Desmond make it in marketing — she assumed her current position only recently in May 2006. That’s the second anomaly. Back before 2001 there were many positions like eMarketing Director within pharmaceutical companies. Then they were all laid off or transitioned into the brand teams. Now it appears that eMarketing Directors are coming back into vogue! At least this jibes with a promise Merck made back in November, 2006 to cut back on television advertising of new drugs in favor of more targeted media such as online internet communities (see “Out with the Bad, In with the Good“).

Dr. Desmond admitted that she had a lot to learn about the “e” side of marketing and she illustrated her point using the cartoon shown here on the left. In fact, her presentation really had little to do with technology and focused on basic marketing principles. “Remember the basics of marketing,” Desmond said, “and I am sure success will follow.”

Maybe this grounding in the basics of marketing and pharmaceutical R&D is the new qualification pharma company eMarketing Directors need to have to be successful. Maybe being too gung-ho on technology for technology’s sake was the Achilles’ heel of the old guard and the reason for their demise.

Desmond listed four “Ruth Desmondisms” that help her focus on what’s important:

  1. Never neglect the specialists. She illustrated this with her experience in the launch of Proscar, a drug Merck launched years ago to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate). According to Desmond, when Merck went straight to GPs with its marketing and bypassed urologists, the latter became anti-Proscar.
  2. Never believe thine own hype. Dr. Desmond’s R&D background may be shining through here. It is interesting to hear this from someone at Merck, which obviously believed its own hype about Vioxx (see “Is Pharmaceutical Marketing BS?“).
  3. Love thy customers. Dr. Desmond cited Apple’s practice of giving computers to teachers in NJ and thereby creating loyal advocates who converted kids who will use Macs the rest of their lives. [Sigh! If it were only so!] This got me to thinking how a pharmaceutical company could do something analogous. I guess free drug samples is the most obvious ploy.
  4. Thou shalt not spray and pray. Dr. Desmond suggests that if Moses went up to the mountain today, he better come back with just 2 or 3 commandments otherwise no one would remember what he said. In marketing, this translates to focusing on 2 or 3 key messages, tops! Sad, but true!

Dr. Desmond did not explain how these principles can be applied to eMarketing or search engine marketing. That was left as an exercise for the audience.

When asked about Merck’s eMarketing budget, Dr. Desmond admitted that she couldn’t answer that question, not because it was proprietary information, but because she simply did not know. This is a surprising admission for a Director of Global eMarketing whose job is to “get the best for our money” and to promulgate best eMarketing practices in all Merck’s markets. She claimed it is really difficult to know what subsidiaries are spending on Internet activities because these dollars are often buried in other categories and not broken out as online expenditures.

I don’t know what the power of an “Executive Director” is, but perhaps Dr. Desmond could simply issue the commandment “Tell me how much you are spending on the Internet and where” and it shall be obeyed! I think this should be “Ruth Desmondism” numero 5. Yes, yes, I know, too many messages!