Novartis names e-commerce, social networking expert as chief digital honcho

Novartis has hired Bertrand Bodson away from U.K. retailer Sainsbury to be its new chief digital officer.

A second Big Pharma player has reached into the retail ranks to find someone to take the top digital job for the company.

Novartis today said that it is bringing on Bertrand Bodson, currently chief digital and marketing officer for Argos, the online and catalog operation that grocery retailer Sainsbury acquired last year. His hire comes just weeks after GlaxoSmithKline announced it had hired a former Walmart executive for top IT position.

Bodson, who starts Jan. 1 and will report to Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez, is taking on a new role at the company, chief digital officer. His charge is to help the drugmaker do better with data, from R&D through interactions with doctors and patients, and make the company’s business operations more efficient.

"Bertrand has a proven track record of creating and implementing successful digital strategies across global companies, and leading cultural change in order to make this happen at scale," Jimenez said in a statement. "This is not just about digital helping the business. Bertrand will help us transform our business model using digital technologies."

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The Belgian citizen and Harvard MBA comes with some street cred in digital, having co-founded Bragster, a video-sharing website where users dare each other to perform stunts or tasks. It was acquired in 2010 by Guinness World Records. Bodson started his career in 1998 at Boston Consulting Group and has held positions at Amazon and EMI Music.

With cell phones, social networking and big data creating so-called “digital disruptions” in a number of industries, Big Pharma is trying to catch up to retailing and other industries that have been tapping that potential. Companies are doing more with digital in clinical trials and creating apps for tracking a variety of health conditions.

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Novartis is already trying on some new digital technologies, having started Vivinda TV, a virtual conference platform that delivers on-demand medical content for healthcare providers.

Some newer biotechs can form with digital wired into their DNA, but the big players are looking for experts to help them integrate it faster and effectively.

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Last month, GSK CEO Emma Walmsley, who comes from a consumer health background, named former Walmart Stores executive Karenann Terrell to the new senior position of chief digital and technology officer to help the company harness data and digital to push forward. Terrell, who left Walmart in March, has also done stints at Baxter International and DaimlerChrysler.

Like other drugmakers, GSK is experimenting with new digital approaches. It recently worked out a deal with China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba to push vaccinations in China.