Digital Teams Must Up Their Game to Meet Commercial Expectations

Executive Summary

Commercial leaders of large pharmaceutical companies have steep expectations of their firm’s digital transformation programs. Not only do they want to fully embedded digital marketing capabilities, they also want digital to effectively support sales and launch centres of excellence – a high bar indeed. So do commercial leaders think that digital teams are meeting expectations? And what do they think digital’s main challenges are? We surveyed six commercial leaders and found that their overall satisfaction with digital is tenuous at best. These leaders believe that they are obstacles to achieving their desired outcomes; they recognize that their firms need to increase their knowledge of digital and change the mindset of marketing and medical teams.
Companies surveyed for this report: Abbott, AbbVie, Actelion Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Boehringer-Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Merck, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi-Aventis, Shire, Teva Pharmaceuticals, UCB Pharma.

Commercial Leaders are Hungry for Digital Excellence

These are interesting times for commercial leaders—senior directors or VPs at the headquarters level responsible for commercial operations and excellence—at pharmaceutical companies. Significant changes in digital technologies, customer expectations, and regulatory environments are forcing pharma firms to rethink how they will achieve commercial excellence—and commercial leaders are trying to figure out the best ways to adjust their business model to keep up. To better understand how well digital organizations are helping their companies achieve commercial excellence, we surveyed six commercial leaders at large pharmaceutical companies and found that they:

  • Expect digital teams to meet not one, but several business goals. Unsurprisingly, all of the commercial leaders we surveyed expect the digital organization to build digital marketing capabilities—but each of them mentioned at least three other major expectations of the digital team (see Figure 1). Four of the six expect the digital team to embed digital capabilities into the launch and sales effectiveness centers of excellence, indicating that the team’s scope extends well beyond the company’s core marketing function. The same number expects the digital team to develop and implement a company-wide digital strategy and support the organization in embracing digital technologies, suggesting that, at many pharma firms, digital isn’t just about selecting and implementing new technologies—it’s a truly transformational program.
  • Realize that digital teams face many different challenges. Several commercial leaders indicated that their organization has to cope with a variety of challenges to achieve digital excellence (see Figure 2). Five of the six agreed that increasing the overall digital knowledge of key members of the organization is one of the main challenges of digital transformation, and four agreed that changing the mindset of the marketing team to do things differently holds the digital transformation process back. On the other hand, only one struggles to find executive support for key digital projects and the overall digital road map. And only one said that effectively managing the organizational change that comes with digital transformation is a major challenge.
  • Have a leadership team aligned with the digital mission. Five of the six commercial leaders indicated that their management team is aligned with the digital organization’s mission and strategy. Just one has difficulty securing the alignment and support of senior management.

Commercial Leaders Don’t Rate Their Digital Organization Highly

Commercial leaders have high expectations of their companies’ digital teams and recognize that it will be difficult to transform their organization into one that’s digitally capable. But do commercial leaders feel that they’re getting enough bang for the buck out of their digital investments?

  • Digital is hardly a top priority. At least half of the commercial leaders we surveyed said that nine of the eleven core disciplines of a pharmaceutical firm’s commercial organization get a higher priority than digital excellence (see Figure 3). Five of the six said that they give real-world evidence and product launch excellence higher priority than digital excellence; four said the same about PRA and key account management. Sales force automation is the only discipline that has a lower priority than digital excellence.
  • Digital is barely managing to meet commercial leaders’ expectations. None of the commercial leaders think that their company’s digital team is exceeding their expectations to any degree. Four of the six think that digital is just meeting their expectations; the remaining two feel that the digital team is not quite living up to expectations.

What it means

Digital Must Move Beyond Marketing to Satisfy Commercial Leaders

Digital teams must achieve more if they’re to meet and exceed commercial leaders’ expectations. In turn, disappointed commercial leaders must be careful not to deprioritize digital by underestimating its role in their operations. Digital technology is here to stay and is already having a significant impact on the role of commercial excellence. In particular, digital as a part of commercial excellence must:

  • Keep improving marketing and brand teams’ digital capabilities. Commercial leaders are satisfied with the capabilities that the marketing organization currently has at its disposal. However, many digital teams report that their mission is far from complete. Additionally, technology innovation in health care—such as proteus’ Helius and Scanadu’s Scout—will continue at a steady pace, forcing pharmaceutical companies to scramble to keep up. While most new ventures will not challenge pharma’s business model, it will only take one or two innovations to change customer expectations significantly enough to compel the industry to change the way it markets its products.
  • Purposefully broaden the scope of digital into other centers of excellence. Real-world evidence, product launches, customer excellence: sooner or later, every key commercial discipline will have digital in its fabric. For example, launch excellence requires that the marketing strategy have a strong digital footprint to build initial product awareness among healthcare professionals across multiple channels. Similarly, customer excellence relies on digital media and technologies to anticipate, personalize, and measure the customer experience of websites, tablet detail aids, and webinars.
  • Realize that business technology is part of the game plan. Even a digital activity as simple as sending an email requires multiple IT components to work together well, including the core customer database, CRM solution, and email analytics. While many digital activities are still agency-led, the more that pharmaceutical companies use in-house capabilities to deliver, the more that “commercial IT” must be involved. Commercial leaders need to realize that digital is not only beautiful apps and websites delivered by marketing and digital teams, but also the backbone of core commercial processes. In turn, this will require commercial leaders to step up their game and further align their organization with the capabilities that their commercial teams will need in the years to come.


DT Associates fielded an online survey in the second quarter of 2014 to professionals who are at the director or VP level of the commercial operations or excellence organization in a pharmaceutical firm. Respondent incentives included a copy of a business eBook or a donation to a charity, as well as a copy of this report. Our sample is not guaranteed to be representative of the population. Unless otherwise noted, data is intended for descriptive purposes.


Tim van Tongeren crc

Tim van Tongeren

Managing Partner

Tim has worked for more than fifteen years with commercial leaders to navigate their strategic and organizational transformations required to thrive on digital technology change. In his current role as Managing Partner, he leads DT’s Solutions and Consulting offerings to advise the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms on how to best achieve customer experience success through digital transformation.

Dennis van Rooij

Managing Partner

Dennis is a recognized expert on how pharmaceutical executives can take full advantage of new digital technologies to bolster their business objectives. He brings a strategic yet pragmatic perspective on digital transformation for the pharmaceutical industry…
Dennis van Rooij crc

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