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PJs, coffee and a two-week marathon of meetings: it’s the CPhI Festival of Pharma

I have been going to CPhI Worldwide for more than a decade now, and each year I hear the same complaints about size, too much to do, hard work etc etc. From attendee to journalist, exhibitor and, whisper it quietly, organiser – but I say the same thing in response to stunned silence each year: I genuinely love coming to CPhI… A better man than I would be willing to accept with the good grace of his English forefathers and be magnanimous in his very much belated win… Not I. I told you you would miss coming, and we really do. I see it as something akin to an annual pilgrimage to the citadel of pharma – you certainly get enough walking done. I am already looking forward to 2021 and meeting the same friends and contacts from the last 10-years and hearing them say begrudgingly they did indeed miss it for the first time.

But in the present, not a day now goes by without our clients asking us: ‘how do we meet new contacts when we cannot meet anyone’, and ‘how do we get our message out there’ in the new normal [who isn’t tired of this phrase incidentally]. Naturally, and since you’re reading this, it should come of little surprise that we say the pharma press is again your communications du jour – as if it was ever not so, as with that fabled little black Prada bag, somethings are of course, timeless. But ‘how’, they ask me, are we to meet with new contacts and share a two-way dialogue again. The irony here is that many of them are also investing increasingly heavily in digital site tours and even full-on immersive experiences (see Samsung Biologics rather grand and complex, virtual stand). No doubt these are tremendous and timely resources and we fully encourage them to embrace a hybrid approach – not to mention we will happily build them for you [just saying]. Looking further ahead and real-time virtual client auditing of CDMO sites is also very much the future – with PAT, continuous processing and real-time monitoring tools it’s not going to be very long now until pharma moves in this direction. And yet, despite this progressive backdrop, the idea of a Virtual Expo, amongst some, delivers the sort of muted response I get to the question of meeting ‘just one more new customer the other side of the Frankfurt Messe’ at 4:30pm on the Wednesday. Yeh we can, we should, but, but – it’s easier not to go.

In the current environment if you want to sort the marketing men from the boys – incidentally, the women marketers are the more progressive of us – and those who will ultimately deliver above market performance just listen for those key phrases. Some warning signs to look out for are ‘we are in a holding pattern’, or ‘we are going to see how the next few months pan out’, or worst of all, we are using this time to ‘recontact cold leads’.

And herein lies the secret, taking new approaches – and Virtual Expos are most definitely one – delivers new results, and therefore new types of leads. Best of all, what is not to love about a global event you can approach without running between halls, in a time limited fashion, knowing full well no matter how hard you try there always someone you missed.

That and you can now have a productive meeting in your PJs with homebrewed coffee in hand. Or if you’re on trend, do it in a shirt and tie in the study with the complete works of Chaucer, Confucius and Confessions of a Call Girl in the background (tick well-read, wise and woke).

In marketing and business development, especially in the difficult moments – see the dilemma of many a Chinese company today – too often we confuse having a strategy that supports the business with reduced exposure and interaction (i.e. targeted), with taking the Ostrich approach. Yes, sticking your head in the sand until we think it’s safe to come up. And this is indeed a really good analogy, as if everyone else is metaphorically sticking their heads in the sand you will find there is far less competition – eyes on the prize – for the resources still out. And we should in fact be rather bullish as a market, because investment is flooding in at the discovery level, COVID has reinvigorated our reputation and demand, and outsourcing is on an ever-expanding trajectory.

So, it brings me full circle to the Festival of Pharma in October. Marketers keep saying the same things they want a platform to meet, they want active leads not cold call options that require months, if not years of warming; they need it to have enough size and scale to bring in the full community.

This is what CPhI does so well, better than anyone else in fact, and by a long way – if anything those familiar experiential complaints around CPhI: it’s too big, there’s too much to do; it’s tiring are simply a reflection it does all of these things a tad too well. But turn that vast global community into a digital platform – if we embrace it, yes you – it’s going to be exactly what we have all been looking for. It’s also the future I might add and 20,000 execs and 700 exhibitors has to be platform worth engaging with. So while I can see CPhI Worldwide returning to its full mighty scale in a year or so’s time, I have little doubt it will be alongside a rapidly growing digital exhibition. COVID has pushed us 5-years ahead in digital working, the zoom call, the visual sales tools, the explosion of podcasts and video interviews. We embraced it all.

In two year’s time, you will have at event budgets and digital expo budgets. Why am I so sure they will work? Simply, because at the right digital expo – just like at an in-person event I might add – large numbers of your customers are looking for partners. Conversely it gives attendees a shore fire period where they know they can engage with and meet a large number of fully prepared and debriefed suppliers. So not only are your contacts receptive to your messages at this time, they are ACTIVELY pursuing them. How, why, who would turn this down. It’s an unmissable opportunity, especially as for this year at least when there is no live alternative.

My advice on how to maximise the potential of the festival, however, is the one thing that does remain: plan, plan, and plan. Don’t ‘dip your foot in’, ‘see what happens’ or view it as a ‘trial run’: review everything, target against defined metrics, have clear goals and timelines, and make it happen. The building of a successful CPhI exhibition for any client is in this period now, in the run up to the event. What you do in the next month will define how it goes, and how impressive your pipeline is going to be in 2021, and how impressed you future clients are with your ability to take a changing environment in your stride.

Register now is my advice, but the PJs are optional.

The CPhI Festival of Pharma will take place 5-16 October, for more information or to register to attend visit  

Author: Alex Heeley, Managing Partner at De Facto