Sales Experience for Marketers Decreasing in Japan’s Pharma Industry

Morunda recently placed a Business Unit Director with a European pharmaceutical company. We met with many global executives to discuss the completion of the search. They asked a common question, Why is there a lack of marketing talent in Japan? I have been asked this question more times than I care to admit over the past 15 years, and I parroted the same answer I learnt years ago. I explained, “Because Japan is a sales-driven country, marketing candidates need to spend at least 10 years in sales before entering marketing.”

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As soon as the words had left my mouth I thought, “Hang on – is that true?” I started to doubt this commonly held belief and realized that I had better look at the facts.

Certainly, it is true that the growth of specialized therapeutic areas places more emphasis on marketing strategy and quantifiable analyses of which marketing activities are giving the greatest return on investment. These trends have increased pressure on all companies in Japan to lift their marketing game.

We analyzed candidates from Janssen, BMS, MSD, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, GSK, Sanofi, and Novartis. We checked our database, scoured the resumes, and found that, on average, a marketing candidate has spent around 7.4 years in sales before joining a marketing team. That is around 2.5 years less than the commonly assumed length of time.

However, 7.4 years is only a part of the story. Is the length of time the same for foreign versus Japanese firms? How about younger candidates? Have they spent a longer or shorter amount time than those who are in their 40’s and 50’s?

Looking at the data more closely, we found that those product marketers aged 43 years and younger had spent five years as Medical Representatives, while those aged 44 and above have spent 8.6 years. It has been said that, to acquire excellence in an area of endeavor, the practitioner needs to spend 10,000 hours. If an MR spends 10 hours a day for 222 workdays in a year, then he or she has spent 11,100 hours in the field.

Interestingly, many believe that Eli Lilly is one of the strongest marketing companies in Japan, yet their marketers have only spent an average of three years carrying the bag.

Why has the number of years decreased over time? The answer is unclear. Perhaps the push from global headquarters to improve the marketing talent has meant that companies need to closely align themselves with other markets. Has the increase in specialty care meant that younger, sharper brains are needed?

The trend can be seen from multiple companies, as illustrated in Figure 1. We also looked at Japanese companies to see if the same pattern emerged. We did not have enough data to analyze company by company, so we combined candidates from Taiho, Asahi, Astellas, Takeda, Chugai, Dainippon, Taisho, and Daiichi Sankyo. On average, candidates from Japanese companies under 43 years of age are spending 6.1 years in the field, while those 44 and above spent an average of 9.1 years.

One take-away for employees who are now working as MRs and who wish to pursue careers in marketing is that they need to be making the transition around the five-year mark to stay on track with their peers.

This trend appears to be aligned with global career development. The good news is that, 15 years ago, significant changes were made with the internal recruiting of MRs to marketing. It should be noted that the emphasis on sales is still stronger in Japan than in other markets.

The other positive finding is that Japan’s Pharma market should have younger candidates who have a greater number of years of marketing experience. Recruiters may need to find another excuse for not being able to find talented marketers in Japan’s pharmaceutical market.


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