GSK looks to be more agile and ‘fail fast’ to take on direct-to-consumer brands

A mixture of agility, flexibility and speed is helping the pharmaceutical giant take on the DTC brands by making bets in lots of areas and “pouring gasoline” on the ones that work.

Voltarol-GSKDirect-to-consumer brands have claimed the headlines in 2018, credited for their ability to establish personal relationships with consumers and operate at speed compared to big businesses tied up in complex retail contracts.

While agility and ‘fail fast’ may be words most often associated with this startup world, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is experimenting with new ways of working across its consumer healthcare arm focused on forgetting the fear of failure.

This push is being led by Tamara Rogers, who joined GSK in January 2018 as senior vice president and region head for GSK consumer healthcare in EMEA. The senior marketing leaders across EMEA report directly to Rogers.

She joined during a period of digital transformation for GSK, which in 2017 became the first consumer healthcare business to partner with Google on its own tech stack. GSK reports that owning the data first hand has helped the business significantly improve its ROI and transparency.

READ MORE: How GSK’s digital transformation enabled it to ditch ‘safe’ advertising

Rogers describes digital as a massive enabler for everything from running more efficient programmatic and improving media efficiency, to exploring AI recognition and enhancing content creation. Based on this approach, she wants her teams to be more agile and work in beta on minimum viable products, encouraging them to become comfortable killing off ideas that don’t work without seeing it as a failure.

Within the digital innovation hub, for example, GSK works on the premise that if the company only had digital media to work with, and nothing else, how would it create engaging, connected brands. The organisation has also changed the way its teams are set up, so instead of giving a project team a task and then having a classic pipeline review at certain decision points, there has been a shift towards short sprints.

The teams start with a hypothesis, a small budget and a short amount of time, with progress being assessed at the end of the sprint. The teams are asked to assess what they have learnt and whether it is worth exploring the next stage of the project.

You have to set yourself up to not invest the whole business in those experiments, but instead have lots of experiments and pour gasoline on the ones that work.

Tamara Rogers, GSK

Rogers explains that the teams working in this way understand those are the rules of the game and so are not completely wedded to each new idea, meaning their energy easily leaps to the next project. This, she says, is one of the big differences between a startup and a classic consumer packaged goods company.

“There is a huge amount of risk for a startup. Whereas we have some resources that we can invest into all sorts of ideas and we are learning how you call time on them if they’re not going to work, because we know that 95% of new ideas fail,” she adds.

“You have to set yourself up to not invest the whole business in those experiments, but instead have lots of experiments and pour gasoline on the ones that work.”

Rogers admits, however, that GSK is less well placed today to understand a consumer’s lifetime value in the same way as a direct-to-consumer business, which is why the organisation is exploring a number of different business models.

“We are continuing to work with all sorts of routes to the consumer because they’re all reinventing and making sure that we’re becoming more efficient and productive in the different routes, whether it’s bricks and mortar, whether it’s pure-play or whether it’s brick and,” she explains.

Closing the career opportunity gap

Passionate about being an empathetic leader, Rogers believes it is important to have diversity of thought in teams and making that visible across the business, so employees feel like they can be fully themselves at work.

GSK has 100 diversity champions sitting across all levels of the EMEA consumer healthcare business who are tasked with feeding back on how things are progressing and what could be done differently. Rogers also ensures that, whichever market she is in, she speaks to a diverse cross-section of 20 people from the team to get a sense of what they’re proud of, what GSK does well and what it could do better.

She takes a cue from GSK CEO Emma Walmsley, who rather than solely talking about being a female leader, is more interested in the broad spectrum of diversity. This attitude is important, says Rogers, as it shows a leader who is thinking beyond self.

The company has now moved away from rating people on a one to five system and instead bonuses are tied to the global business results to ensure the performance of the company feels like a team effort.

GSK has also introduced 180, a form of feedback that delves into a number of measures from how much your manager understands what motivates you to whether you have an unconscious bias that is preventing you from connecting to your direct report.

The team also have check-ins throughout the year to assess how the work is progressing not just in terms of performance, but also where they are in their development and ability to close the “opportunity gaps”.

READ MORE: GSK launches brand incubator as it shifts to ‘fail-fast’ culture

GSK is looking for leaders who are consistently developing top talent and Rogers encourages her team to leave a positive legacy.

“In the check-ins we have with I’m wanting to know about the talent they’re developing and we will often talk about how many people somebody has had promoted so that it’s very visible the progression that individuals are making and how they’re contributing to the legacy of the organisation,” she explains.

“You want to leave something stronger than you found it and it also opens conversations around ‘this leader seems to be developing top talent regularly, what is it about them?’”

Speaking on the topic of self-limiting beliefs at the LEAD network event 2018 in London (15-16 November), Rogers recounted how she started her career at Unilever as a management trainee in 1993. She went on to work in the UK as a brand manager for Persil before moving into leadership positions in key account management.

Appointed senior vice president of Unilever’s global deodorants category in 2012, Rogers then moved to the US in 2015 to become the executive vice president for the North American personal care division, before joining GSK this year.

Drawing on her own experiences, Rogers expects the marketers in her business to own their careers and not wait to be “picked like a flower” if they want to explore a new opportunity. She argues that women, in particular, can be held back in their careers by a “self-limiting mindset” which stops them seizing opportunities.

“That’s a role for your line manager and the team around you, if you know them well. They can help you spot when you’re ready for something new and knowing that, in the world we’re in today, the roles are changing so fast that you’re never going to be 100% baked,” Rogers adds.

The self-limiting mindset needs to change fast, she claims, as over the past 25 years business culture has moved away from companies telling its employees where they are going in their careers, to a millennial generation who want to collect experiences and have no intention of staying in one company to do so.