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Inside story of Novartis’ 2011 global media pitch


Good Pitch Week came to an end with the inside story of Novartis’s 2011 global media pitch. Giving their unique perspectives on this complex and challenging review were Sharon Spina, VP Global Purchasing at Novartis Consumer Health; Tom Denford, founding partner of ID Comms and Matt Blackborn, president of emerging markets at winning agency Starcom MediaVest Group.

Novartis is one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, with 5 divisions operating in 100+ markets, more than 50 brands on their books and $60bn annual sales. There had been no media review since 2004 and across the different divisions and markets there were ongoing contracts in place with 47 different media agencies.

By 2011, with TV effectiveness deteriorating and the need to partner with a digital specialist media agency, Novartis decided to call the global review. The aim? To replace the multiple agencies on their roster with just one media agency across all divisions and markets and move from TV buying to integrated comms planning and media excellence.

High stakes
With such a prodigious change there were risks: the threat of non-alignment across divisions; the potential of drain on resources (and subsequent disruption of marketing operations); the risk of a drop in productivity of the incumbent agency and the need to effect a smooth transition between agencies.

What ultimately tipped the balance and ensured success was the creation of the Novartis Media Council (a merger of marketing and procurement from each division). It was this council that decided to engage global marketing and media consulting business ID Comms and task them with using their expertise to ensure Novartis selected the right media partner.

In the 18 months prior to the Novartis pitch, five other pharmaceutical companies had also called global media reviews and there was an element of pharma ‘pitch fatigue’ among agencies. To ensure they were a priority and ‘reset’ expectations of a pharma pitch, the Novartis Media Council and ID Comms established five guiding elements to ensure theirs was the ‘best pitch of the year’:

  1. 1.       Clearly defined objectives:

Agreement on decision-making criteria; agreement on what was required from media agencies; ID Comms carrying out ‘deep dive’ research with each division

  1. 2.       Protect stakeholder alignment:

Alignment meetings at every decision stage, weekly work-in-progress calls and 2 executive-level sponsors on the media council reporting to the CEO

  1. 3.       High quality briefing and communication materials

A high-quality, 80-page hardback briefing document was created, acting as a powerful symbol of unity within the divisions of Novartis and instilling the notion with agencies of a genuine and important brief

  1. 4.       Flawless project management

Overinvestment in ‘black belt’ project management and the subsequent creation of a bespoke process to fit Novartis’ needs

  1. 5.       Objective and accountable decision-making

Clear evaluation criteria; upfront agreement on weighting; objective ranking of agencies based on performance and a commitment to high quality debriefing of unsuccessful agencies

The final decision was based on 5 criteria:

  • Capabilities and philosophy on media planning
  • Metrics and analytics to drive better media choice
  • Digital capabilities
  • Quality and cost of agency staff
  • Media buying efficiency and saving potential

Success story
The successful agency, Starcom MediaVest, have an interesting ‘never pitch to strangers’ policy. As the incumbent media agency for Novartis’ China market they were ready and waiting when the RFI arrived on their doormat. Starcom MediaVest had an inkling that a global review would be called and they’d done their homework. The agency had developed a deeper understanding of Novartis, their divisions and markets and created an internal strategy to win the pitch with full management buy-in.

All of this hard work was nearly undone, however, when Novartis arrived 4 hours early for the first ‘chemistry’ meeting. Caught off-guard, the agency were forced to make a call whether to go ahead with the meeting or to ask the client to come back later. With the words ‘welcome to our dress rehearsal’ they went for it. This was a show of flexibility and adaptability that gained them considerable good will from Novartis and ID Comms.


All three parties gained a great deal from this review. For Novartis, the review left a legacy of mutual respect and collaboration between the company’s divisions and markets. It raised their profile as a serious media client and gave them immediate and significant value improvements.

The complexity of the review left ID Comms completely fearless, with a commitment to good practice and a strong belief in the power of a good brief.

Starcom MediaVest altered their company structure to allow them to be better organised and more effective in a changing world. Besides the obvious benefit of having won the account, the pitch served as a powerful proof point that their strategy was delivering.

This event provided another impressive example of best practice in action. The pharmaceutical industry is extremely process-driven and it served them well in this review. We saw what great things can be achieved when you pay close attention to building strong relationships and putting watertight mechanisms in place. Like all the events in this Good Pitch Week line up, it was an opportunity to glean learnings from an exemplary approach to the pitch process. We’ll be taking home a lot to think about.

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