In the first of a new series, Pf’s John Pinching meets Novartis’ Senior Brand Manager and Pf reader, Caroline Armstrong. A franchise coffee house in Farnham sets the scene, as she orders an exotic latte, while he opts for an invigorating Americano (with three sugars).
When I meet Caroline – winner of the prestigious Joint Working Award at the Pf Awards 2012 no less – she exudes confidence, charm and style. Indeed, she immediately draws my attention to a famous local sculpture and points out that, viewed from a certain angle, it resembles something entirely unexpected. I conclude that it must be ‘attention to detail’, which sets this career-climber apart.
What is your background, Caroline? I come from Newcastle and did a degree in Biomedical Science at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. During my time there I worked in a lab at Proctor and Gamble. After approximately five minutes I knew it wasn’t the career for me! I needed to do more than just take microscope slides out of a washing machine for the rest of my life.
How did you embark on a career in the selling side of pharmaceutical drugs?
I attended a recruitment drive, was impressed with the potential opportunities and became a medical sales representative, first at AmDel, then Altana Pharma. I know it’s a cliché, but in order to fulfil my ambitions I had to be out there, ‘carrying the bag’; it’s the best way to build a network and discover how the industry really works.
Do you remember your first gig? Yes, it was pretty nerve-wracking. As soon as I arrived at the surgery, I was taken straight to the GP, without any time to compose myself. It was a steep learning curve, but I soon gained confidence and was able to apply my personality when describing products. Showing your human side in medical sales is vital.
How did that enable you to progress further? I joined Novartis initially as a Vaccine Account Manager, before getting the chance to go on a marketing secondment. I really felt like the company believed in my ability and this ultimately led to my roles as the UK Influenza Brand Manager and Travel Vaccines Senior Brand Manager.
What were the most satisfying aspects of your new Novartis ventures? Getting involved in really broad campaigns was very exciting. With influenza it’s not just a case of painting patient pictures, you are convincing people to purchase products there and then; sign on the dotted line. From a marketing view, delivering an effective strategy is essential, but from a sales view, you’ve effectively got twenty minutes in front of a healthcare professional to deliver, not just a generic pitch, but one that demonstrates empathy, understanding and confidence in your proposition. There’s only one chance, so you have to make every interaction count.
Does it make you appreciate the impact you’re having on society? It’s pretty amazing to think that last year the number of vaccines given through pharmacy alone could fill St. James’s Park. That really puts the number into perspective.
Do you support Newcastle United, by any chance? Yes, I used to go with my dad, when David Ginola was playing (judging by the wistful expression, I think Caroline may have been a great admirer of the aforementioned Frenchman).
I digress, what programmes are you putting into place in preparation for the dreaded reform act? We have been very passionate about implementing vaccination programmes, which enable a more community-based approach to health. We’re training pharmacists to vaccinate in local pharmacies, enabling many more thousands of people to access healthcare. It will certainly relieve some of the pressure from GPs. People will have the convenience of being able to pick up their weekly shop and a vaccine, all in one place.
How do big companies react to changes enforced by new political policies? From an industry perspective you can’t plan too far in advance because you simply don’t know what the NHS will look like in a few years. If Labour get in all the changes might be reversed and we’ll end up going round in circles.
You’re still young, but seem to have ascended up the ranks rapidly I enjoy what I do and like to do it well; then I’m ready for the next challenge. When you reach milestones in your career it’s so important that you have a story to tell, making sure that it’s as fulfilling and successful as it can be. Some people are satisfied to do the same thing for years, but I want each chapter to represent a new adventure and an opportunity to make a difference.
What does the future hold for you? I’m starting a new job in Basel! (Caroline is making the pilgrimage to Switzerland and she’ll be working as Business Franchise Manager in Novatis’ Ophthalmology business unit – which is nice).
That’ll be incredible Yes, I’m going there with my partner and it will certainly be a great experience. It’s a global role so it will be really interesting to see how other health services, like Australia and Canada, operate compare to ours. I hope they don’t have as many acronyms.
There’ll also be some cultural differences in Switzerland too? Yep, for a start, they only serve wine in 100ml measures and that will take some getting used to!
What will you miss? The higher your position, the greater potential there is for you to be removed from the ‘patient’. I think I will miss the daily coal face interaction you get when you work in a local market, close to the actual health provision. That is why I think it is so important to remember what it is like when you are on the road, bringing products to life. Ultimately, whether you are in a local or a global role, everything you do is still for the patient.