3 Secret Lessons David Bowie Could Teach Pharma

“David Bowie predicted the future of music a long time ago,” states Mathew Ingram of Fortune. But, what many have failed to notice is Bowie’s extreme success as a business genius and visionary entrepreneur.

In a recent Fortune article, Bruce Weinstein presents a deeper look at how the Thin White Duke ran his commercial career. Weinstein points out three leadership lessons gleaned from Bowie’s success that could easily be linked to challenges Pharma is dealing with today.

  1. Charge a premium price for premium work

The 1980s saw an increase in CD releases that offered sub-par audio quality and truncated song lists – a cheap move by companies to try and maximize profits.  Streaming from his success in the late 1980s, these same companies offered Bowie multiple propositions to reissue his back catalogue on the then-new CD format.

Bowie turned all of them down. He found the right label company – small, independent, but smart enough to beat out its competitors – agreeing to sell his CDs at full price, reflecting the high quality of the original albums production and artwork.

John Hammond, Rykodisc’s marketing department stated, “Bowie said through a representative that he wasn’t interested in releasing budget titles.” Bowies’ approach to pricing was straightforward – you put a lot of effort into developing an extraordinary product or service, so, the way you sell it should display that care too.

On the same note, we’ve seen Pharma struggling with the increased, shameless reputation in the eyes of the public after a tough year of “drug pricing ‘gouging’ claims”, according to Ben Adams, contributor for Eyeforpharma.

In the summer of 2015, Turing Pharmaceuticals – run by infamous Martin Shkreli – hiked the price of an old HIV drug by 5,000% when it bought the medicine’s rights. It has been a tough time for Turing Pharmaceuticals as attempted distancing from the scandal left a stain on the company.

Pharma experts state that the case for pricing is different in context for each company. “In some cases, there is the need to fund an expensive medicine for small populations whilst in other cases, it may be a case of ‘what the market will bear’ with all the shades of grey in between,” claims Leslie Galloway, VP at the European Confederation of Pharmaceutical Entrepreneurs (EUCOPE) and chair of the European Medicines Group (EMIG).

Why are these drugs so expensive, though? If we did understand the reasoning behind these high drug prices, it might have an impact on the way decisions are made in the industry.

However, looking up, the industry is starting to understand that there is a need to be transparent when it comes to pricing, which will eventually provide reason and justification to the price.

The US, for example, “relies on its competitive marketplace to control costs, while encouraging the development of new therapies. Because of the ecosystem that exists in the US, patients enjoy access to innovative medicines far earlier than patients in countries with centralized price controls and leads the world in drug discovery and development. In fact, US cancer patients have higher survival rates than Europe. The five-year survival rate for all cancers is 40% higher for men and 13% higher for women in the US than in Europe,” claims Steve Ubl, CEO of the US industry group PhRMA.

  1. Fight for what you have created

According to Weinstein, Bowie’s story illustrates the power of fighting for what’s yours. Two documentaries, Paul Justman’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Denny Tedesco’s, The Wrecking Crew, reveal what can happen when an artist doesn’t retain rights to his or her creation.

Bowie’s story reveals that he remained an icon not only for making some of the most stirring music of the past fifty years, but, mainly due to the fact that he remained in control of every facet of his career teaching us how to run a business with intelligence, class and success.

Similarly, a Fiercebiotech article recently presented the 25 most influential people in biopharma. These influencers, along with others, are doing everything from helping change the metrics on R&D performance, crusading new technologies and redefining biotech in a boom, to trying to forge a new definition for Big Pharma.

According to the authors, the truly influential never lose sight of the fact that in order to make a lasting impact on business, you have to force it to change in some fundamental way – or get people to look your way while you give it a try.

Such is the case for Bill Ackman  – Pershing Square Capital Management, Dr. Robert Califf – FDA, Andrew Conrad – Google Life Sciences, Noubar Afeyan – Flagship Ventures, Hans Bishop – Juno Therapeutics and more.

In a more personal context, Anne Wojcicki, CEO and Co-founder of 23andMe fighting for her “truth” is outstanding.  Strictly speaking, Wojcicki is not ‘pharma’- but the way 23andMe has led the consumer health diagnostics revolution, along the way securing approval from FDA, is going to massively impact how the pharmaceutical industry conducts drug development in the future.

Wojcicki, or for the sake of example, Theranos ‘  Elizabeth Holmes, definitely brings along extraordinary visions and are well aware of the cost of battles that come along innovation.

  1. Engage your fans

Bowie had a huge opportunity in 1998 when he grasped the power of the Internet and actually took advantage of it. Who would have thought that major musician would go Internet entrepreneur – in ’98, he created his own Internet Service provider, DavidBowie.net?

Well before Facebook, Twitter or YouTube existed, Bowie believed in bringing his music fans alike together in one single community; where archives of information and music were available for access.

Although commonplace right now, at the time, Bowie developed an online community where users could create personal homepages and emails for themselves, engage in live chats with Bowie and others, pursue promoted songwriting competitions, cybercasts, and more.

Ken Blanchard, business consultant states, “if you want raving fans, you have to engage them in innovated ways, just as David Bowie did.”

It seems the concept of “fan engagement” has come a long way since 1998, yet, still keeps its essence. Patient-centricity – the leading trend in Pharma today, has Pharma adopting the concept with open arms.

In fact, as Emma Sutcliffe puts it, “2015 was the year when the industry decided it would transform itself into more far-reaching ‘healthcare organizations; that could truly appreciate patient’s entire needs.” [link to 2016 Influencers Outlook]

A great example is that of Janssen Healthcare Innovation, the leader on patient-centric innovation. Last year, they triumphed at eyeforpharma’s Barcelona Awards, winning multiple awards at the ceremony – among them, ‘Most Valuable Patient Initiative’.

Just as Bowie displayed leadership in innovation, innovation and patient centricity is clearly a driving force at Janssen. “Certain areas of ill health are poorly addressed today and we are searching for new ways to treat, cure, prevent and intercept these illnesses,” addresses Jane Griffiths, the Company Group Chairman of Janssen in EMEA.

Griffiths recognizes the whole industry has been through a major change that requires the industry to steer away from old business models and toward a new patient-centered model.

A transition toward a patient-centered model requires full transparency. “We started a journey around 3 to 4 years ago for a new strategy for my EMEA group of countries to become more outcomes-led, rather than purveyors of pills,” Griffiths explains. “That means driving positive outcomes for patients through a combination of great medicines and patient support programs and measuring the outcomes through real-world evidence – and starting to transparently talk about it. You go to see a doctor in order to get better, not to just to get a pill. We want to partner with people outside of the pharma and healthcare industry, but in order to do that; we need to improve our reputation.”

Steps Moving Forward

In retrospect, Bowie was a ground breaker that will be greatly missed. He leaves behind him a wonderful legacy – not only on how to create great music – but on how to reinvent yourself in a nonstop moving challenging industry.

Such insights are definitely applicable to Pharma – specifically in the arena of big data and patient centricity where new challenges call urgently for new business models.