Science for good: How Genentech’s mission yields innovation and growth

As part of one of the world’s largest pharma companies (Roche), Genentech has achieved impressive growth and industry-leading innovation while maintaining a strong company culture. In this episode of C-Suite Growth Talks, McKinsey’s Jennifer Dikan is joined by Dr. Erica Taylor, chief marketing officer (CMO) of Genentech, to learn about the company’s C-suite commitment to “science for good” and its cultivation of a culture where diverse employees thrive. We hear Erica’s insights into how life sciences marketing is evolving and what it will take to succeed in the future.

Cindy Van Horne, McKinsey: You’re listening to C-Suite Growth Talks, a podcast by McKinsey. Here we speak with top corporate leaders about the challenges and opportunities on the road to sustainable and profitable growth. We’re excited to have with us today Dr. Erica Taylor, chief marketing officer at Genentech, and Jennifer Dikan, associate partner at McKinsey, to discuss growth and marketing in the world of life sciences.

Jennifer Dikan, McKinsey: Thank you, Cindy, and welcome, Erica. Thanks for joining us on the show. I’m excited to sit down with you today to reflect together on your first year as Genentech’s first CMO. There are a lot of layers in your story, but let’s start with sharing a bit more about your background.

Erica Taylor, Genentech: I always start by saying that I’m a scientist by training. I trained as an immunologist and have been in the bioscience industry for a little over 15 years. I’ve spent most of that time at Genentech, in a variety of roles—analytics, internal consulting, sales, and marketing. In 2020, I left the organization and went to a different biotech company to work on a COVID-19 antiviral. That was an interesting time that gave me new perspectives on marketing. I then came in as CMO at Genentech almost exactly one year ago.

Jennifer Dikan: As we all know, Genentech is often regarded as the world’s first biotech. It has grown into an organization with over 40 medicines on the market and over 20 new molecular entities in clinical development—a fantastic growth story rooted in innovation. What do you think are the most pressing challenges standing in the way of growth for life sciences innovators today?

Erica Taylor: We’re really proud of all we’ve been able to innovate. I think one of the biggest challenges facing everyone in this industry is that the pace of innovation is increasing, as well as our understanding of disease and the natural histories of certain pathologies. This leads to more sophisticated drug development, drug targeting, and better health for patients, which is a very good thing. The challenge it presents, however, is we have that many more molecules and therapeutic areas to address with the same amount of commercialization resourcing.

At Genentech, we’re used to commercializing a small number of products that are used by a large number of eligible patients. But the industry is moving toward a large number of products used in smaller and smaller groups of patients, given our increasingly sophisticated understanding of diseases. So we have to retool how we think about commercialization. If we don’t do that and don’t do it quickly, we risk sacrificing growth and, most important, the possible benefit to patients.

Jennifer Dikan: I’d like to talk more about Genentech’s overall growth aspirations, both short- and long-term, and how sustainability and inclusivity sit at the heart of your growth strategy.

Erica Taylor: We need to understand disease in a more nuanced way and in more diverse patient populations. Historically, our studies have been done in relatively homogeneous populations from a race and ethnicity perspective, and that’s an opportunity lost in terms of understanding disease states more deeply. So focusing on inclusivity in our research and clinical development is incredibly important to sustaining innovation in the market.

We have to maintain the sustainability of the healthcare system in general. We cannot have a runaway increase in costs and inaccessibility. We’ve been thinking about possible opportunities for patients to administer medicines at home, for example, and different modalities of administration that are more convenient and fit better into the lives of people we’re trying to help.

Jennifer Dikan: Let’s go a little deeper into the concept that we’re moving from a world of a few medicines for lots of patients to one in which there are lots of targeted therapies for smaller groups of patients. How is Genentech thinking about leveraging digital technologies like generative AI to ensure that the right medicines are getting to the right patient populations? And what role does marketing play in that?

Erica Taylor: Finding these patients and finding the providers to treat them is getting harder, especially when it comes to ensuring optimal care. With these sophisticated, targeted medicines, we can’t continue to produce and market content for the masses. We have to begin to tailor and personalize, delivering information through the right channels in a timely way for the right patient.

That’s really hard to do with traditional marketing. Not too many people are picking up brochures in doctors’ offices these days. We must leverage digital tools to find alternative ways to reach and educate patients. People access information on their phones and through social media, and we need to bring these technologies into our space so we can scale our ability to reach patients and providers. We have to have new tools and processes to do this appropriately. We need approval processes, for example, that are equipped to handle modular content that we can then assemble and distribute through various channels using generative-AI tools. That’s where we’re headed. We need to have tools, processes, and people working together so that we can change mindsets and behaviors.

Jennifer Dikan: Let’s switch gears for a minute and touch on Genentech’s culture. Within the life sciences industry, many folks look at Genentech as one of the most innovative, culture-driven organizations. For the past 24 years, it has been listed as one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, and more recently on the list of Forbes’s America’s Best Employers for Diversity. How has the unique culture at Genentech informed and influenced the company’s growth strategy?

Erica Taylor: This is another thing we’re really proud of: the culture we actively cultivate and sustain, as well as all our efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion. We walk the talk, and I think a lot of the things we have put in place are industry leading. When I think about our culture, there are two things that root us. First, of course, is that we follow the science.

Second, we take care of people. If you want a culture of innovation, you have to create a space of safety, of mindful risk taking. And that means you must have great trust in the people you’re bringing into the organization.

Then layer in the fact that we’re focused on ensuring we have a diverse workforce; I see that only accelerating. Bringing in folks with different lived experiences, backgrounds, and education creates more opportunity for innovation at the bench and beyond. If you want to reach more, smaller populations of patients with more medicines, you have to connect to the people you’re treating. Having a workforce that reflects the patients we serve ensures that we’re that much more able to customize and personalize our content, making it culturally relevant, so that folks understand the innovations we’re able to offer them. That’s essential to our future growth.

Jennifer Dikan: In the context of your role as Genentech’s first CMO, how are you bringing a culture of innovation to the marketing organization?

Erica Taylor: One of the things I’ve been really focused on—knowing the transformation that we need to make—is celebrating when we win but also what we learn when we don’t. This is how I think about fostering a culture of innovation: make it safe to do some mindful risk taking, even if we get a knee scrape here and there. Because of all our historical achievements, we’ve somehow developed a point of view that says, “Well, we must do what we know will work.” And while that’s important and true, we must also be able to innovate, which means trying to do something you’re not sure is going to work. I try to use our platform to highlight things we’ve tried and learned from, even if they didn’t go exactly as intended, just as much as we celebrate the successes we took a chance on.

This is something that is personal to me as a scientist by training, having spent ten years as a bench scientist. I’m very used to doing an experiment and having it not work out the way I planned. You have to quickly understand what you’ve learned from that and design the next experiment accordingly. I really want to bring that spirit into our marketing culture, so that we can find novel ways of developing content. Maybe we scrape our knees here or there, but we learn, we get up again, and we make sure we pass those learnings on to other teams.

Jennifer Dikan: One thing that Genentech emphasizes is the “science of good”—ways to advance science for the greater good. What does this mean at Genentech, and how does the science of good fundamentally shape your growth agenda in marketing?

Erica Taylor: In our view, the science of good is about enabling people to live the best possible life they can, in the best possible health. That unlocks so much in terms of healthier families, healthier communities, healthier worlds. From our point of view, that means not just innovating for folks who have diseases we treat, but also things like how do we make sure people are getting tested early, how do we make sure that all patients have access to therapies, how to ensure that your zip code doesn’t determine your life expectancy.

And one of the things that we’ve done to shape our growth and equity agenda is completely overhaul our customer engagement organization so that we are rooted in the communities we serve. Traditionally, in our organization and others, you orient from the product and then go out into the community. In this case, we’re orienting from the communities and bringing those insights into our operation. That is how we will shape our growth agenda, identify new opportunities for patients who may not be experiencing optimal health, and roll up our sleeves to figure out how and where we can partner to advance good health for all communities.

Jennifer Dikan: I’d love to switch gears back a bit to our core theme of marketing. As the industry grapples with the challenges you highlighted earlier—reaching more diverse patient populations and having more competitive therapeutic areas—I’m spending a lot of time with leaders across the industry thinking about the future of marketing. What does the marketer of the future look like, and what capabilities will they need to deliver value?

Erica Taylor: As much as I’m usually up to my shoulders in our tech tools, processes, and people, I also think a lot about what the marketer of the future needs to bring to ensure our continued growth as an organization. I’m challenging myself to move beyond who we might traditionally have thought of as biotech or pharma marketers. So, for example, a lot of organizations have marketers with deep science or consulting or sales backgrounds, who are always focused on our industry. However, there’s so much to be brought in from outside our industry. I think the marketer of the future might not have a pharmaceutical background and might have a background of selling consumer products instead but understands how to leverage performance marketing and real-time data to make decisions and market in a very agile way using modular content. We’re starting that journey, but marketers of the future will already know how to do this.

I also think a lot about Gen Zers—how we will engage with them and incorporate them into our workforce. I am really excited about the opportunity just to be humble and open to what these folks care about. There’s a huge trend toward purpose-driven work, making sure that it’s connected and rooted in community, which is in line with what we’re already doing. How do I make Genentech an exciting place to be for someone who wants to do that work?

Jennifer Dikan: As you think about this next generation, as well as the leaders who will help them develop, what advice do you have for somebody who’s starting their career in life sciences marketing specifically?

Erica Taylor: I’ve benefited from some great advice. Sometimes it was advice I only appreciated after I hadn’t taken it and learned some hard lessons. That’s often when you learn the most. But there’s also been great advice that I did take and was able to grow from.

For someone starting their marketing journey today, in or outside this industry, I’d say, “Be a sponge, learn as much as you can from what’s happening out in the world. Be willing to try again: innovate and experiment with new technologies and modalities, but also understand that a bedrock of knowledge and capability exists in those around you who are more seasoned.” Putting those two together moves you forward in your career.

I also tell folks, “Meet as many people as you can.” Do it in the spirit of growing a community of like-minded thinkers, rather than in a transactional, “I want this from you, you want this from me” way, and you will always have an interesting opportunity in front of you.

I also think it’s really important to learn as much as you can about all the other parts of the business. Perhaps it is my bias as a scientist, but it’s important to have an understanding of the very early parts of the value chain. Do some time in sales, too, to understand the later parts of the value chain; all these pieces connect. This is a great way to grow your career, and you might uncover interesting opportunities and career paths you hadn’t imagined for yourself.

Jennifer Dikan: I think Genentech has been a great example of supporting that type of “walk-around” experience at the organization to get exposure to different functions, teams, and types of experiences that make for well-rounded leaders.

Erica Taylor: I love spending time with college and graduate students, and I get asked all the time, “How did you go from science to marketing?” I would not have been able to do that as easily at another organization. I think Genentech values folks with atypical backgrounds.

I’ll say my sales job was the hardest job I ever had, and I learned the most out of it. It made me a better marketer, gave me a different sense of other career options and a deep, deep respect for lifelong sales professionals. It is hard work, and it’s hard to do really well.

Jennifer Dikan: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a leader, especially over the last year as Genentech’s first CMO?

Erica Taylor: I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I’ll pick three, because they’re top of mind for me, particularly as I gaze ahead into my next year in this role.

The first is, Words matter. This sounds simple and obvious, but I don’t think I realized that what I articulate—the vision we have, the outcomes we’re driving at—would hold so much weight in an organization prepared to mobilize. It is very powerful to see something that started out as a somewhat harebrained idea becoming reality. And as much as I try to be thoughtful about what we’re achieving and how we talk about it, I’m also a girl from the Midwest; I speak casually. Every so often, an offhand comment gets taken in a completely different direction that I didn’t intend. I’m much more mindful these days to be very clear.

My second lesson is around aligning how I spend my time with the priorities I set. What makes that hard isn’t that I don’t have priorities, nor that I can’t say no to things, but the fact that there are so many things to wrap my arms around. I very much want to be there for my team and my people. Spending time with them gives me energy and ideas, even if it’s not something directly related to a priority. So I find myself working to not be overcommitted in my time and efforts, balancing external with internal-facing endeavors. I don’t know that I’ve ever got this balance right. I hope to get it better in the next year or so, but I’ve definitely learned that if your time is not spent where your priorities are, they won’t move forward as quickly.

And there’s one more lesson that I learned when I was in sales: you might be right, but you won’t change behavior. That was important, because up until that point, as a technically trained person in an analytics role, my currency was accuracy. But my job as a salesperson was to shift behavior. It’s something I see in very bright, ambitious people who struggle to move an organization or a group of people. They’re rooted in “But this is the right thing to do,” and people will nod and smile and then go about their daily business. My aha moment was realizing that you need to understand what’s happening with that individual, their office, and their patients to motivate a change in behavior. That has stuck with me.

Jennifer Dikan: As marketing leaders feel more pressure to drive growth, any parting thoughts on what they could do differently?

Erica Taylor: The one word that comes to mind—and this might sound completely unexciting—is discipline: being really disciplined about the investment decisions you’re making and how you measure success, being very clear in articulating your actions and key performance indicators. Very often, it’s hard to get the right leading indicators to help you make better decisions in the moment to extract value. Some of it’s related to the tools we have and the pace and frequency with which we can get them.

The thing I find the hardest about having discipline around this is that marketing tactics are attached to people, who are attached to them. And they value the work they’re doing; they’re very passionate about it. So it can be hard to raise your hand and say, “This tactic isn’t doing what we need it to do, and we need to stop.” It takes a lot of discipline, a lot of courage to walk away.

It’s absolutely important for CMOs to create an environment where we’re doing that. I see that as my role right now. I would encourage all my peers within and outside this industry to build a reward mechanism for making good, disciplined business decisions, versus seeing something all the way through that we had a passion for at the beginning of the year but that has lost its effectiveness three-quarters of a year later.

Jennifer Dikan: As you think about the future in life sciences or in marketing more broadly, what do you see that excites you the most?

Erica Taylor: I’m excited to help bring new innovations to patients. I’m always going to have an orientation toward the cool things that are happening at the bench, the innovative ways in which we reach patients. What gets me out of bed in the morning is using marketing—our ability to reach people—in a personalized, culturally competent, sensible, and relevant way to motivate action among our patients, our providers, our payers, and our health institutions. They’re all working together for the same endpoint: increasing the health of the community. I want to find ways to fine-tune that.

What that means for me is that we need the most diverse workforce possible to reflect our patients. I’m excited about shaping our organization in that direction and what it will ultimately mean for patients and for the health of the community overall. It’s a big goal, and I know we can’t do this on our own. I’ve got an amazing team around me and wonderful support from Genentech and beyond; moving this forward is my small part to play in trying to save the world.

Jennifer Dikan: That’s a great note to end on. Thank you, Erica. I really appreciate your time and for joining today.

Erica Taylor: Thank you so much.

Cindy Van Horne: That was Dr. Erica Taylor, CMO at Genentech, and Jennifer Dikan, associate partner at McKinsey. I’m Cindy Van Horne, global director of communications at McKinsey. Thanks for listening to this episode of C-Suite Growth Talks. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll see you next time.

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