Originally Published : Authority Magazine
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I can’t imagine that too many people set out to be a pharmaceutical marketer or consultant. My life has been a series of doors opening and closing, with each iteration landing me in a new and often unanticipated place. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was an avid baseball fan. When the Dodgers didn’t knock on my door with a contract, I left home at the age of 16 ½, to attend The Ohio State University.
I fell in love with OSU and took whatever jobs I could to pay my tuition. Finally, I found ROTC, which was a godsend. After graduation, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. In the mysterious workings of the military, I ended up as a speechwriter for General Earl C. Bergquist, who had been President John F Kennedy’s assistant attaché. The General took a liking to me and after my hitch was up, recommended me to Bobby Kennedy, who was preparing his 1964 campaign for the New York Senate. When Kennedy won, I assumed I would go to Washington, but that opportunity vanished.
I began working in Public Relations, and eventually found a job with Lederle Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company (now Pfizer). I soon became bored with PR and used the GI Bill of Rights to pay for graduate school and the opportunity to earn an MBA. I busted my hump and became valedictorian of my class at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The dean of the business school dropped a line to the President of Lederle, and in a couple of weeks I was yanked out of the PR department and dropped into the management development program.
At that point I began working my way up the ranks, finally becoming a manager of Marketing. Shortly afterward, I was recruited to take charge of a small advertising agency, Robert A Becker, Euro R.S.C.G. (now Havas Health), whose clients were all in the pharmaceutical industry. And, I suppose you could say, there my adventures began.
Prior to my taking the helm, Becker had been acquired by Havas, a huge advertising conglomerate in France. We soon became one of the country’s largest Pharma ad agencies and successfully launched a number of billion-dollar brands, as well as a number of brands with smaller sales that often had a big impact on patient’s lives. We actually grew it to number two globally.
In the mid 2000’s, I left Havas to form my own company, Flaum Navigators. Initially, we limited our services to consulting, but clients soon requested that we take over advertising responsibilities. Although this was exciting, I soon began to feel a sense of “been there, done that” and returned the agency to its consultative origins. It’s about then that the second phase of my career began.
One of my “secrets” as a product manager was finding great people to mentor me as I rose through the ranks and in turn mentoring my reports to help them hone their talents. I began teaching leadership skills and also tried my hand at writing books. My first leadership book, The 100-Mile Walk, co-written with my son, actually became a best seller and exposed me to a wider field of interests. At the same time, I began to address an issue that has plagued me throughout my life and which I’ve avoided mentioning in this interview.
I am a stutterer. As I child I dreaded seeing Porky Pig with my buddies cheerfully stammering away every Sunday afternoon in a Walter Lanz cartoon. Although much of the time my impediment is relatively controlled, I’m never unaware of my condition. At the same time, I’m increasingly aware of the importance of paying back the help I’ve received over the years by working within the stuttering community. So, in a sense, I have two careers right now.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting and what lesson you learned from that?
This question has a bit of a double edge for me. In my experience, a marketing “mistake” often costs one or more people their jobs. The mistake can be hilarious for onlookers but devastating to the participants. Here’s my story.
Soon after becoming a junior product manager, I had the responsibility of hiring a new member for my team. I was referred to a candidate who was woefully unqualified, but who really wanted the job. Perhaps in sympathy, I ended up hiring him. As you might guess, he was completely inadequate, much to the amusement of many of my colleagues, who took delight in recounting tales of his incompetence. It was not the fellow’s fault, but the harder he tried, the more hopeless the situation became. I finally had to let him go.
My lesson was to take a class in interviewing skills and to work closely with my personnel department chair.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Early in my “career” in public affairs, I was employed by Ruder and Finn on the Philip Morris account, working on no-smoking rules. I took the project seriously; my colleagues regarded me as an antismoking zealot. I became a water cooler outcast. But I had an epiphany. I didn’t care what they thought as long as I was convinced I was doing the best job possible.
Looking back, I think this is when I began to see that as an employee or a vendor, my first obligation was to my employer and client, and they deserved nothing but my best. I later went on to formulate these thoughts as a value statement for the Becker, Euro R.S.C.G. agency when I took the reins.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’ll have to broaden this statement to include my days at HAVAS (formerly Becker, Euro R.S.C.G.). Our strategy could be boiled down to “Innovation.” We were always looking for the Big Idea, never knowing where it would come from. I remember when we won the Flomax account. Flomax treats benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). Its main use is to shrink the prostate and thereby relieve the urinary urgency that men often encounter as they age.
We were facing two competitors with slightly better data and significantly larger ad budgets. I think our client would have been satisfied with meeting its sales quota and a respectable third place market share. Our creative team came up with an idea that was unheard of at the time. We created a commercial showing a family touring the country with a porta-potty hitched to the back of the car. This not only dramatized the problem, but also wiped out any stigma for taking it. Almost overnight, we made Flomax (great name, by the way!) the number one BPH product globally.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I mentioned writing books. I began by writing about leadership skills, how to adapt to a new promotion, how to recover from a setback such as a job loss, and how to reinvigorate a stalled career.
My latest book, The Stutter Steps, is a departure from the business category and is intended to help stutterers and their caregivers. It’s something I’m very passionate about.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
My number one mentor was my mother who said, when you are interviewing with fluent speakers, you’re at a disadvantage because you’re a stutterer. So, remember you have to work harder and be smarter than the competition.
My second most important mentor was Bob Luciano, the Lederle Laboratories president. Bob empathized with my speech problem but saw through that and promoted me on my performance.
Is there someone you consider to be your hero?
My late wife, Mechele, was and remains my all-time hero. She was always a great advisor helping me deal with challenging clients and helping me cope with the superiors at Havas advertising. She helped me grow Havas Health with her wise counsel.
Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
First, I’d say read actively — for example, WSJ daily, Business Week, and Fortune — to gain knowledge of what other companies are doing to develop in innovative ways.
Also, take out-of-the-ordinary vacations where you’re likely to meet interesting people in other areas. Who needs to spend precious R&R time with other CEOs?
There are hundreds of memorable marketing campaigns that have become part of the lexicon of our culture. What is your favorite marketing or branding campaign from history?
In 2000, we introduced Zerit, a major HIV product for Bristol Myers Squibb. My team and I departed from the standard focus on professional medical journals and ran ads directed to the gay communities: in their neighborhoods, in subways, buses, etc. Zerit became an essential component in the triple-therapy that finally helped make HIV a manageable disease.
Going directly to the public was unconventional at the time. But HIV was a unique challenge. Many patients knew more about their disease than the average internist. It’s worth noting that we were soon copied by just about everyone.
If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like?
1. Outcomes drive the creative and everything else. With Zerit, we weren’t trying to be “breakthrough.” We just knew that we had to reach patients, who were an emerging group of decision influencers.
2. Identify key opinion leaders and involve them in the planning and strategy. When we were assigned Effexor, which is a major antidepressant, the drug was not doing well. We talked to dozens of psychiatrists who helped us understand that depression hits everyone within a patient’s circle. So, we began a campaign focusing on how our drug could help bring people back to the lives they wanted. The first ad featured a young girl who had written a post-it note saying: “I got my mommy back.” That insight was all we needed to turn the brand around. We made it number one
3. Ensure that patients can afford the product. Anyone who knows the pharmaceutical market should be aware that affordability is NOT a pricing issue. The solution is working out strategies to help support uninsured patients and to work with insurers to set reasonable co-pays.
Consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going?
In the Pharmaceutical industry, A.I. will play a very prominent role. This will be in terms of guiding drug development. Many ancient drugs, including aspirin, are being found to have potential roles in treating cancer. At the same time, medicine will become much more personalized.
An often-overlooked problem within our industry is ensuring that the rest of the world can benefit from our discoveries without creating disincentives for innovators. We’re still learning public health lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic.
What 5 things do you wish someone told you before you started?
1. Be very careful when you interview job applicants. At the start of my career, my listening skills were poor.
2. I wish someone had said something like, “I’ll hire you, Sander, but you have to improve your speech fluency.” Of course, nowadays, you’d probably get sued for saying that.
3. Admit your mistakes quickly and correct them before your boss comes at you.
4. Don’t wait to dismiss your bad hires.
5. Creating a personal connection with your team will almost always pay off. When pull all-nighters, you find out if people come because they’re A+ players. Look at Elon Musk sleeping on the factory floor when his employees were working round the clock, trying to make quota at Tesla.
Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners to become more effective marketers?
As a consultant, I urge clients to read the leading business periodicals constantly. Also, consider off-the-wall publications like Wired. I could add paid ads on social media, but that horse has already left the barn.
What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?
Off-hand, writings by (the late) Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mary Barra, and Indira Nyoori. I learned about innovative ideas and trends from them as well as how they strategized to make their respective companies stronger. Welch was always my business hero.
One more before we go: If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
For me, it’s the idea that we all need to learn something new every day — the need to have a competitive edge…all the time. And if I can’t learn something new, I become a little depressed.
My stuttering will always be the crucible experience, which will always keep me sharp and prepared to do whatever I do next, beyond expectations. I have found that stutterers are often perfectionists and never quit until they hit the A+ mark.
Thank you for sharing so many valuable insights with us today!