In my 11 years in pharma marketing, I have been involved in many agency pitches. Often the agency was chosen on the basis of one presentation from senior people who were seldom seen again. This approach presents a risk for Pharma companies because they have not met the people who would work on the account, nor considered where they work and how they work.   This can lead to dissatisfaction with the new agency after a short period, wastes time and puts the business at risk of not driving and delivering performance.

A solution to mitigate this issue is for the Pharma company to do its due diligence and spend time with the agencies in the selection pool before the final decision is made.

In a recent, large-scale, creative pitch the selection process we adopted had three stages; a credentials stage, a ‘Gemba’ stage and a final presentation in response to a defined brief.

Gemba is a Japanese term meaning ‘actual place’ and is used in a work setting to describe the act of going to see the actual process, understand the work, ask questions, and learn. Some say it’s the Japanese equivalent of MBWA (management by walking around).

This stage was used in the selection process to ‘go and see’ the agencies ahead of progression (or not) to the final stage.

Each agency was visited for around three hours at their offices, where we met a cross-section of people who would be representative of the people who would work on the account if successful. This group included strategists, creatives, data experts, account executives and project managers.

Activities included ‘meet and greet’ and discussions about ways of working including, how they challenge their clients and how they respond to and manage issues when they arise.

Benefits of the Gemba stage:

  1. See the agency offices to confirm scale of their operation and working environment
  2. Meet a representation of the agency team to assess the cultural fit with the Pharma team
  3. Discuss ways of working to identify cultural synergies and possible red flags.
  4. Fundamentally, choose the right agency team for the Pharma team and business to save time later on.

In our recent global pitch process using Gemba we were able to iron out several questions and concerns during this stage, informing and assisting the final decision. This involved going back again to the agency after the initial visit. There were learnings on how to make the best out of Gemba on both sides, but in summary, it was a highly effective and positive experience for all.

My top tips on getting the best out of Gemba:

  1. Create a brief about what you want to get from the agency visit and check the agency have interpreted it correctly
  2. Have a cross-section of people from the Pharma company attend, from senior leaders to the marketers
  3. Define measures for each activity and ask the Pharma team to score these straight away after the visit – this defines selection to the final stage
  4. Go back for a second (or more) visits if you identify areas for clarification
  5. Provide feedback to the agencies to help them understand positives and any negatives.


Author: Michael Orriss, Pharmaceutical Marketing Consultant.