Automated Marketing Fail

As the world has become overwhelmed with spam, marketers are increasingly looking to tailor there message more to the recipient. It began years ago with including your target’s name, so that it appears you are receiving a personal message, when you are simply getting spam. Now marketers are becoming more creative, trolling news services to look for more specific information about the company you work for in order to craft a message that appears as if their company is truly interested in yours. Unfortunately, such automation can lead to abject failure, and accomplish the exact opposite (to be fair, I don’t know for a fact that automation is involved in the story I’m about to share, I can only assume that an actual person would have been more careful).

The company I currently work for had an unfortunately negative result in a key clinical trial recently. Such things are not unusual. In fact, clinical trial failures are more the rule than the exception in the pharmaceutical business. We all wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t. So, a consulting firm that provides a variety of services around the pharma industry apparently has some robots that troll looking for interesting headlines. One of our recent press releases had the following phrase “announces top-line data from” followed by the type of trial in question. From the title of the release, there would be no way to know whether the data was positive or negative. Anyone familiar with the industry would assume it was negative, simply because you are wrong more often than right in drug development. However, the individual who constructed this robot, apparently didn’t know that, so I received a congratulatory email about the announcement. The email started with “Congratulations on your recent success! We read about on Continued success to you all on this project.” The email then went on to tell me about the company, which purports to be a life sciences solution provider. They claim to have expertise in our industry. Given that they don’t understand the success rate of clinical trials, that is clearly not the case.

This blog cites a study that looked at failure rates from drugs transitioning from phase 2 to phase 3. Per the embedded diagram, that number sits at about 68%. A company that understands our industry would know that, and would not do anything as foolish as assuming that a pivotal phase II announcement is going to be positive. As a result of this email, I will remember the company’s name, and won’t waste even 30 seconds talking to them about an engagement. If they can’t get something as trivial as this correct, I’m not going to look to them for understanding in any of the more complex aspects of our business. I’m being kind and not including their name in this blog posting. Perhaps I should rethink that.

At any rate, this gets back to a theme that I have been thinking about a lot, which is success recipes for IT leadership. I’ll be teaching a course at UCSD Extension this summer that is focused, at some level, on these recipes. Unfortunately, like drug development, there is no magic bullet that guarantees success, so we’ll be exploring approaches that can help, not dictating a solution. What we can do, and will do, is look at approaches that can guarantee failure. The most common one that has plagued IT and IT related initiatives since the dawn of the computer era is a failure to understand the business you support. This particular email is yet another version of that story, where an IT solution was apparently crafted (the automated robot) that had a decision algorithm that was clearly not written by someone with an appropriate level of drug development understanding. Interestingly, and sadly, this means they have no chance at an engagement with me. I don’t have the luxury of that sort of risk taking. If they do this to other companies (or other people learn of their lack of expertise), what will this mean to the long term success of their organization?