Bill Bernbach said “observe the obvious” and there have been a lot of obvious things in need of our observation these last couple of months. For healthcare marketers, two in particular merit a closer look: the failure of Haven—the “healthcare triumvirate” of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan, which closed after less than two years and before it ever launched a single product—and Pfizer/BioNTech’s development and launch of a COVID-19 vaccine (completed in less than 10 months with 95% efficacy).

In many ways, this is a classic “David and Goliath” tale. The venture that was supposed to be a guaranteed winner—three of the world’s most successful companies in a partnership to reshape healthcare and viewed as so revolutionary that it wiped away literally billions of dollars in market value from established players in days following its announcement—was pretty much a complete bust. The other venture began with a husband and wife team, a pair so committed to their science that they returned to their lab on their wedding day, to eventually create a company of 1,800 people (still tiny by pharma standards) and was “found” by Pfizer—together they developed the first effective COVID-19 vaccine.

The longshot saved the day. The sure-winner flopped. Why? What went wrong and what went right? I believe there are five simple lessons behind the “boom” and the “bust” that can make us all better healthcare marketers.

Lesson #1: To be a successful healthcare marketer, you need a really clear goal.

Healthcare people like to know what the finish line is, the good ones to a fault. While Haven brought together three very successful (and different) companies, it doesn’t appear that a specific end-goal or strategic roadmap to get to that goal was ever embraced by the organization. Beyond a failure to create anything, this mistake also led to a revolving door of talent at Haven. Pfizer/BioNTech was almost the opposite: Albert Bourla (Pfizer CEO) laid things out clearly and explicitly to his team from the start. Bourla told them “the vaccine is needed by October; do not approach this as business-as-usual; and do not be concerned with ROI or funding.”

Lesson #2: Healthcare is big, amorphous, and complicated—so if a team is not on the same page, there are many ways things go bad.

Within your company, it is important to spend a lot of time making certain everyone—brand team, internal constituencies, and other partners—are in lock-step. If you get the feeling you’re not doing your best, this should be the first place you look every time. Haven had a big problem in that one partner (Amazon) was clearly on a different page. In fact, Amazon actually launched competing businesses to Haven during the JV (Amazon Care, Amazon Pharmacy)—leaving Haven to not only have to figure out how to bring new solutions to a complex market, but also how to beat their most technologically proficient partner. Pfizer and BioNTech had clear, unambiguous direction from the top and were aligned on their goal and how to get there.

Lesson #3: In healthcare, science needs the scientists and business needs the business people, but the two need to be carefully linked.

This is especially true today. We’ve begun living in a “golden age” of medicine, with therapies that do things that even a couple of years ago would have been considered incredible (it was only 2018 that Dr. Ugur Sahin—the husband-side of the BioNTech team—made the prediction that his company’s mRNA technology could be an effective and fast solution for a vaccine in the event of a global pandemic). Bourla’s faith for a solution to COVID lay, he said, “in the power of science and the power of the public sector.” In the case of Haven, they hired a very talented and visionary CEO, but he had no prior experience operating a company, especially one in a market as complex as healthcare—and the reports are that there was no link between the dream of what was possible to reshape healthcare and the on-the-ground tactics for doing so.

Lesson #4: Everyone has a plan until they get hit by the first punch.

I think the sportswriter Mike Lupica is actually the one who penned this famous “Mike Tyson Rule.” In healthcare, there are a lot of people with plans who then get hit by the first punch. In Haven’s case, you have to wonder “What were they thinking?” Haven came to the table with an intention to use technology to make healthcare easier to access and more efficient and with more than 1.2 million employees to serve as customers. And they had Amazon Web Services (AWS)! Yet, on January 4th when they announced ceasing operations, Haven had not released a single product; they hadn’t published any papers or made any grand pronouncements about its business. Must have been a pretty hard punch they took.

Lesson #5: In healthcare, you have to be more committed to doing something versus talking about doing something.

Haven recruited very smart talent and expected that—left alone—this talent would come up with an amazing new solve for healthcare. It just never happened. Contrast Haven to Pfizer/BioNTech: the entire charge for the vaccine was “do something—deliver this vaccine by October, don’t think about anything else such as process, funding, or return, just get it done.” Today healthcare marketers are often hostage to more “talk” than “action.” They can improve the effectiveness of their investment by continuously doing—relentlessly reviewing data and continuously testing new channels and ways to deliver their message. In a world where “everything is media,” success is in direct correlation to the ability do something and learn.

Damon Runyon said, “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—but that’s the way to bet.” The bust and boom stories behind Haven and Pfizer/BioNTech prove Runyon right yet again. Certainly Pfizer/BioNTech was swift, and because they operated with a clear mission, had everyone on the same page, linked clear roles between science and business, drew a clear line from their vision to operational tactics, and were more action than talk, they turned out to be stronger than Haven ever was. And, in the end, we will all be grateful that they were the right bet.

  • Ned Russell

    Ned Russell is the Managing Partner, Healthcare for the Anomaly Alliance of agencies within MDC Partners. In this role, he is responsible for bringing together an eclectic and complimentary group of talent to help healthcare clients grow in an environment that is ripe for change.

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