Nicky Walsby, executive director of Health Unlimited, discusses the need for pharma to think outside the box and focus on the end consumer – and how those people shouldn’t be defined by their disease

What is your role?

My role is executive director of Health Unlimited, so I’m responsible for the strategy and the growth of all the health agencies that sit within the broader Creston Unlimited brand. My responsibility is to define the overarching health strategy and work out how we can better compete in the healthcare market.

What is your background?

I started in PR over 15 years ago and worked for agencies Grey, in the GCI brand, and then Red Door in 2003. I joined the board six years ago and for the last three years I’ve been working across the different health agencies playing a much more integrated marketing and communications strategy role.

How do you start your day?

It’s a guilty pleasure but I start my day listening to the Today programme in the car on the way to work, then it’s a case of email blasts, catching up with the different teams and seeing what products we’re working on at the moment, before I get into the nitty gritty.

What trends do you see taking place right now?

Many of the trends that will be really exciting for us over the next one to three years centre around data – what we mean by data, how we are collecting it and what we are doing with it to drive better campaigns and ensure outcomes for patients are optimised.

The word data is thrown around a lot but people often don’t actually understand what that means – which sounds crazy, but there is data across every aspect of our day-to-day jobs, and so it’s about working out which data is going to be appropriate. Companies don’t know what data they have access to or how it might be important or useful to them, and they don’t know how to work with their agencies to gather better data and use it to measure and respond to what the needs of our end audiences are.

What are your biggest challenges?

One perennial challenge, which affects every agency and pharma company, is the acquisition of the right talent – finding brilliant, inquisitive minds that are able to think outside the box and come up with new solutions. We have great teams but we’d love to be able to double their size. Another big challenge at the moment is the noisy market where everyone is competing to stand out. Be they agency or pharma company, we all need something compelling to say and it's our job to help our clients really stand out from the crowd and deliver programmes that meet the end customer need.

That’s the other big trend we will see over the course of the next year – a greater focus on customer experience and consumer engagement. There’s been a massive convergence within the healthcare space over the last few years with different industries getting involved including big tech players like Google, Apple and Samsung as well as traditional consumer agencies who see how exciting health is and want a piece of it.

We really need to work out how we, as healthcare experts, can define our role and our purpose, how we add value above the pill. That has to be centred on what we can do directly for the consumer – I use ‘consumer’ intentionally because, from my point of view, there’s no such thing as a patient. You need to engage with people in a way that a consumer brand would; just because they happen to have a condition or an illness does not mean they want to receive information or be treated differently.

What do pharma companies need to consider in their communications?

We need to be thinking truly multichannel. At the moment every company talks about multichannel, but for many this begins and ends with the iPad. We need to get to actual definitions and understand all the ways in which we can communicate with individuals so that we’re providing not only the content they want to see but the right content in the right places at the right time.

Have you ever received any good advice?

One of my favourite quotes is from Bill Joy, the former CEO of Sun Microsystems: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”. I love that because it’s so true – we don’t have all the answers; not as an agency group, individual pharma company or, indeed, an industry. We need to be much more open and work in partnership and collaboration with those that have different viewpoints.

We ran a great programme for Novartis last year called COPD Crowdshaped, a two-day innovation crowdsourcing event in San Francisco. We invited 50 people from fantastic companies that had nothing to do with healthcare, such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Phillips, and over two days we got them to come up with potential solutions to improve the lives of people with COPD. There were some fantastic outcomes that pharma themselves would never have been able to come up with.

Do you have any passions outside of work?

I am an avid skier. I love being in the mountains; it gives me a great sense of perspective and what’s really important. I also think being in the mountains is a brilliant place for thinking time and ideation.

‘You need to engage with people in a way that a consumer brand would; just because they have an illness does not mean they want to be treated differently’