The Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues
The old adage says “you better be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.” In many ways that captures the spirit of the new product approval process in the BioPharma and Med Tech industries. A company works for years to develop a breakthrough therapy or diagnostic test and when it finally gets approved, then what? The inventors and product developers have completed their job and now all eyes turn to the marketing department – and you better have your plan in place. Nothing is more stressful – and more rewarding – in the career of a marketing professional than the opportunity to launch a truly innovative product. After citing the opportunity for growth and advancement, it is the most common reason that marketing professionals share with me when describing their motivation to make a job change. For most people it only happens a few times in their career, and of course it’s important to make the most of it.
When everything goes smoothly and according to plan everyone celebrates a successful launch and thanks the marketers for doing a nice job. They had leading-edge technology, put together a reasonable plan, and didn’t screw things up. But what about those occasions where things don’t go so well? Sometimes launches don’t meet expectations, or they are so stressful when they are successful that the culture of the organization suffers dramatically. In those instances a marketing team can end up with the Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues.
Similar to a doctor routinely hearing complaints and bad news from patients, when I’m speaking with people about their interest in making a job change it’s often a bad experience in their current situation that has them talking with me. The negative experience can be driven by many things, but a common malady is DPLB. I’ve heard it said that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” and that the first six months of a launch will usually set the trajectory of the product forever. So there’s a great deal of pressure to get it right, which means long hours, frayed emotions, and the potential for dysfunction in a marketing department.
I recently placed a Marketing Manager in a company that is in the middle of launching it’s first major innovation in about 15 years. It’s a first-in-class product and expectations are running high. While colleagues in Engineering, Project Management, Accounting / Finance and other departments are going home at 5:00, the marketing team is still there at 9:00 or later each time, working frantically to resolve details about things like sales meetings, tiered-discounts, and Med Ed slide decks. Meetings are tense, Directors are yelling at each other, and senior executives are micro-managing. The stress flows down from the top and as the Marketing Manager told me, “it’s hard to find an executive who can display grace under pressure during this launch.”
Marketers choose this type of career path, of course, along with the risk / return that accompanies it. But some organizations and team leaders are more prone than others to foster disorganization and stress in their product launches. The put the FUN in dysfunction. I’ve heard stories about Chief level commercial officers in large organizations overruling decisions about the type of candy given out at trade show booths. One medical device company I work with elected to launch their product in the U.S. – including deploying a sales team – after getting CE mark approval in the EU but before getting FDA approval (it took another 18 months to get FDA clearance). Stories abound about pricing decisions that have derailed product launches, particularly in oncology and other markets that frequently introduce innovations where valid pricing models are difficult to find.
Pitfalls like these are common, of course, but how does this impact staffing and recruitment?
High-profile product launches are terrific for the recruiting process because the best way to attract great people is to offer clear opportunities for growth and development. As we know, nothing drives organizational growth like innovation and a robust product pipeline. But high-profile product launches can be very bad for long-term retention of talented employees. The build-up to a big launch often creates unreasonable expectations and if results over the first year fail to meet those expectations then the marketing team is often the first to be blamed. Depending on their personal resilience and the availability of opportunities elsewhere, these marketers may elect to jump ship rather than wait for a turn-around. The overall morale of the team drops and many people begin to believe that the grass is greener somewhere else, particularly if continued underperformance of the product is likely to result in a downsizing in the future.
Even successful launches can often breed attrition and turnover. Many marketing professionals join companies in order to get a high-profile launch on their resume. After a year or two post-launch they expect to be able to earn a promotion since they helped launch a successful product. The problem is that the company probably hired a large number of talented individuals in the run-up to the launch and people often feel resentment when they lose out to a peer on a promotional opportunity – so they leave.
The other issue that leads to high turnover rates shortly after a successful launch is good old fashioned burn-out. If the stress, frenetic pace and dysfunction of a big launch doesn’t abate within 6-12 months post-launch the marketing team is most likely going to experience turnover, even if the product is booming. Whether it’s excessive overnight travel, long hours at the office, or toxic team chemistry the talented people I know are only willing to put up with it for a limited amount of time. Most marketers understand and agree to the need for short-term pain in exchange for longer-term gain, but the pain will result in burn-out if it persists for more than a year.
In summary, big product launches are great for marketing professionals – except when they’re not. If you find yourself with a case of the Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues give me a call and we can discuss what to do about it.