Five Inconvenient Truths That Can Make or Break a Product Launch

Launching new pharma products can result in many sleepless nights, leaving launch teams wondering, “Did we nail it?” Their uncertainty is not unfounded: McKinsey research suggests nearly half of all launches underperform pre-launch expectations set by companies and industry analysts. Combine this track record with the fact that the next five years will see more than three times the launches of the previous five years, and you get a recipe for high anxiety.

While even carefully considered launch plans sometimes fail, successful teams often are similar in that they are highly flexible and committed to reprioritizing and pivoting their strategies on the fly. Rather than conforming to perfect-on-paper plans, nimble launch teams prioritize agility over perfection, giving rise to the concept of the “agile launch.”

Understanding the basics of an agile launch is one thing, but living them is something else altogether. Before tackling your next product launch, consider the following Five Inconvenient Truths that distinguish an agile launch from the traditional “pharma playbook” and reflect on how to make your organization more agile in its upcoming launch efforts.

1. It’s not about the launch plan, it’s about nailing the few priorities that really matter.

Although robust launch roadmaps are important, checking everything off a long list of deliverables is no guarantee of success. Success begins with a clear understanding of the factors that are most important to the brand’s growth. These priorities often include:

  • A market access strategy that balances payments to payers and the channel with patient support and couponing, plus investments in precision marketing and sales strategies.
  • Differentiated brand positioning, fueled by insights that motivate patient and physician demand by connecting with unmet human needs, particularly in situations of low clinical differentiation.
  • Rapid establishment of patient demand—even if it comes at significant cost. Without a track record of growing patient demand, it’s hard to build a compelling argument for payers and physicians to shift to your brand.
  • A sales force that is well-aligned to the prescribers with the greatest opportunity, which often sits at the intersection of prescriber beliefs, control over what they can prescribe, and attractive patient coverage.

After that, typically two to three additional, brand-specific issues will vary situationally. The strategic clarity afforded by having a shared set of five to seven priorities allows the team to disproportionately focus time, resources, and leadership attention on activities that support these priorities. Other deliverables that are not associated with the key priorities are still important, but won’t sink a launch if not executed perfectly.

2. Companies that get launches right are those that are prepared to get it wrong.

Significant time and resources—including market research and “re-work” during the launch process—are spent determining which messages make it to market. In an environment as dynamic and complex as pharmaceuticals, certain unforeseen circumstances will emerge that were not considered pre-launch. The companies that react best are those that have intentionally designed processes to quickly respond to new information and adapt. For a successful agile launch, that means you need to have ways to get rapid (ideally real-time) market feedback and baked-in processes to quickly adjust strategies based on market signals.

“Test and learn” approaches enable multiple messages to be deployed and then winnowed down to the most effective. It’s the difference between traditional GPS, which routes drivers based on pre-programmed logic and Waze, which routes based on real-time conditions. Tech companies have been doing this for years (e.g., eBay tests approximately 30 home page changes every day), and this approach is modeled after best-practice software development. No leading software developer today would follow the waterfall approach to software development that predominated a decade ago. Today, they create scrum teams and reprioritize as they go. The agile launch methodology has the same DNA.

3. A great launch team should look and act much differently than in-line product teams.

Launch teams are often structured to align with a company’s functional leadership structure and simplify the transition from launch into in-line management. This typically results in functional teams, each assigned a workstream from the launch roadmap and its corresponding set of deliverables. While this structure usually works for brands where the product strategy is incrementally evolving over time (e.g., a lifecycle management launch), it lacks the agility required for a truly innovative drug. This challenge is exacerbated by the increasing number of functions and the scarce skills that need to come together to make a launch successful today (e.g., the Lipitor launch team didn’t have to worry about social media strategy).

Agile launch teams configure themselves around the five to seven priorities detailed above. These teams are cross-functional, with composition changing over time as needed.

Working in two- to three-week sprints, the objective of an agile launch team is to produce a working version of the key deliverables, test them in market, then rapidly evolve. Functional teams still exist, but they are focused on deliverables that are not covered by the agile teams.

With this model in mind, talent, capabilities, and working style become critical. Success requires teammates to be flexible and willing to work in a non-hierarchal environment. All agile team members must also have solid understandings of launch basics since there is less central control over the work to be done. In short, the star marketer from your last $2B blockbuster may not be right for an agile launch team—it depends on his/her mindset.

4. The biases of your launch team (or senior management) are irrelevant. Leave them at the door.

Even if the launch team is organized precisely right, individual and personal bias can distort reality and result in underperformance. In the absence of solid insights from comprehensive market research studies, biased opinion sometimes can fill the void where facts are unavailable. Those opinions can be steeped in an organization’s experience versus market realities.

For an agile launch team to work effectively, it must be fueled with unbiased data that enable good decision-making. This is not to say that the data must be the definitive, all-encompassing 1,000 participant study. Rather, the goal is to get many directional checks on an ongoing basis from outside the company, using sources such as:

  • Text message-based physician surveys that allow polling physicians on a small (two to four question) survey and get results back in the same day. Rapid deep-dive work can complement the polling work to gain additional insight.
  • Claims/EHR databases to understand treatment paradigms and help segment patients.
  • “Experts on call” to enable quick sense-checking of ideas with unbiased parties.

There is also an important mindset and behavior shift to becoming an unbiased, fact-driven agile launch team. All members of the team—from the most senior leaders down to the most junior—must be expected to provide facts to support their decisions. Operationalizing this requires colleagues to feel comfortable asking even senior executives, “What data are behind your assertion?”

Operationalizing this also requires a different operating model cadence: The team needs to be ready to evaluate new market data on an almost daily basis, reevaluate their current approaches and initiatives, and make changes on the spot, as warranted.

5. Feel free to complain about your access challenges—then do something about it.

The days of immediate access are numbered. Therefore, assume limited access at launch and then expect a dynamic/heterogeneous access environment afterward. Today, many products launch into environments with 15% to 30% of lives having access to drug at time of launch. Physicians who have been detailed on products that patients can’t access invariably experience a hangover effect where they perceive that access is poor even after it improves. As a result, launch teams need to strike the right balance between demand generation and applying commercial resources to physicians who can’t access the product. The commercial model needs to be agile to “follow the access” quickly.

The ability to rapidly take a pulse check across all commercial levers and make data-driven decisions to course-correct is vital, whether before launch, immediately post-launch, or at any point in the one to two subsequent years to improve the brand’s trajectory.

The Bottom Line…

Launching pharmaceuticals in today’s markets is more challenging than ever. The companies that will be most successful are the ones who are most agile. Consider the five truths detailed above and reach full potential on your next launch.

McKinsey & Company and Publicis Health work together to help clients develop agile approaches to winning launches. Applying complementary tools and capabilities, they deliver rapid, actionable analytics as well as change management and execution support to accelerate brand performance throughout the lifecycle. As such, Gregory Graves, Associate Partner, McKinsey & Company; Catherine Mayone, EVP, General Manager, Publicis Health and Sapient Health; and Dan Tinkoff, Partner, McKinsey & Company, also contributed to this article.

  • Janet Winkler

    Janet Winkler is Group President of Publicis Healthcare Communications Group. Janet leads a team of inspired professionals who are motivated to drive growth for clients. More than ever that means disrupting the conventional and providing ideas and solutions that leverage technology, insights, data & analytics, and consulting services, and do so in an integrated way.

    • Brian Fox

      Brian Fox is Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company. Brian guides healthcare companies as they seek ways to improve profitability and grow, often through innovative product launch, marketing, sales, and market access initiatives.

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