For the better part of the last decade, the diminishing role of the pharmaceutical sales representative as an integral part of the pharmaceutical sales model has been a hot topic. In the last six months, news of sales reps being banned from a large, acute-care hospital system made industry waves. A week later, pharma sales reps were under attack in Australia when a group of physicians banded together to start a “No Advertising Please” campaign designed to keep reps out.
Add to that the threat of increasing reliance on digital non-personal promotion, which has been likened to a bogeyman determined to snuff the life out of the pharmaceutical sales profession, and the picture looks bleak. In fact, a report published by Cegedim Strategic Data in January found that many physicians do like the convenience of digital marketing, especially email communications, video streaming, automated detailing, and webinars.
Sales reps are still necessary and relevant
But despite the whiz-bang appeal of digital marketing, many physicians still prefer face-to-face communication, and most large pharmaceutical companies still rely on well-trained sales forces to deliver increasingly complex messages, in an ever-tightening timeframe, under circumstances that are not always ideal.
AstraZeneca (AZ) has more than 6,000 sales reps in the U.S., including a large specialty sales force. As part of its growth strategy, AZ has invested heavily in oncology R&D, resulting in a strong pipeline and the upcoming launch of Lynparza (olaparib), which was approved in the E.U. in October 2014 and in the U.S. in December 2014, for the treatment of BRCA-mutated advanced ovarian cancer.
AstraZeneca’s oncology strategy
AZ is optimistic about Lynparza, which is part of a new class of oncology drugs known as PARP inhibitors. With annual earnings projections as high as $2 billion, AZ is in the process of building up its commercial team in order to support Lynparza and other oncology drugs coming out of the pipeline.
A key part of AZ’s launch strategy for Lynparza is to train more specialty sales reps, who have oncology experience as well as the ability to convey nuanced and complex information to physicians while building long-term relationships.
Sanofi’s diabetes-focused dream team
By contrast, Sanofi is facing the challenge of protecting its diabetes therapeutics market share from the competitive pressure that Novo Nordisk is leveraging, especially in the long-acting basal-insulin space.
One way that Sanofi is trying to push back Novo’s market encroachment—Novo’s long-acting insulin Levemir has been taking roughly 2% market share per year from Lantus, Sanofi’s best-selling drug—is by shoring up its sales team. Recently, the company replaced one-third of its sales managers in its U.S. diabetes business, while continuing to train diabetes-focused reps to tackle the endocrinology market and get the word out (eventually) about Toujeo, an innovative long-acting insulin that is currently being reviewed by the FDA and is expected to win approval later this year.
"We need experienced representatives who can uncover insights about a customer’s practice, patients and payer environment as a basis for uncovering unmet need, and resulting in quality healthcare decisions," said Sanofi VP and Head of General Medicine Sales Scott Oehrlein in an email interview with BioPharma Dive. "That is why face-to-face interaction is so important. Non-personal promotion can’t replace the quality a sales professional brings, especially during launch. However, the right balance of personal and non-personal promotion is the key to success."
What comes next?
In good times and bad, there is a place for talented and well-trained pharmaceutical sales representatives. While in previous decades, reps may have shown up at a physician’s office toting a brief case full of samples, detail aids, and reprints, they are likely to be traveling lighter now, with an iPad and an array of other interactive digital tools.
Is the era of the pharmaceutical sales representative coming to an end? No. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 16% annualized job growth for pharma sales reps between 2010 and 2020. The takeaway: Despite some challenges and a shifting landscape, the pharmaceutical sales representative is here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future.