For Moderna's head of marketing ops, finessing pharma and air traffic control have something in common

Moderna, with its next-gen mRNA COVID vaccine, is setting the stage for a late-summer brawl of boosters versus Pfizer and BioNTech and, of course, the ever shape-shifting omicron variant itself.

Regulatory approval is waiting in the wings, and timing is key for the successful introduction of the shot—and supporting communications—before fall and winter, when health experts say COVID-19 could flare.

Making sure the timelines are not just vaporware is on Jason Benagh, director of marketing operations at Moderna, whose remit for the past year has been doing something very like air traffic control to keep timing optimal in the legal regulatory review process for marketing communications.

It’s an apt simile: In an earlier life in the U.S. Army, Benagh was, in fact an air traffic controller; Moderna’s airspace has gotten a lot busier since the first wave of COVID-19. “[Two years ago] had only 800 people in our commercial group, versus the 3,200 or so today.

"Back then, we had not planned on seeing our first vaccine in the market for a few more years,” he said. The company only got around to branding the vaccine last year. “Our primary focus, especially during the period of EUA is on delivering educational materials to providers administrating our vaccine,” explained Benagh.

“Much of what we needed to publish was at the request of local governments or public health authorities, so we focused on providers, vaccine program administrators, and even the public, putting health and the importance of vaccination above brand.”

Par for the course, last August the company launched its "Make It Yours" awareness campaign, aimed at encouraging people to roll up their sleeves for the jab.

That was also around that time the FDA approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s Comirnaty vaccine—and only about half the U.S. population had been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moderna received approval last fall to market the name Spikevax for its vaccine (along with Comirnaty and AstraZeneca’s Vaxzevria) in Europe and in January this year, having that name made official in the U.S. with the FDA’s blessing.

The company, which predicts $21 billion in Spikevax sales for 2022, injected the name into marketing messages and branded platforms like and YouTube, featuring a video explainer introducing the new vaccine moniker.

And to airstream the marketing pipeline from ideation to regulatory approval, the company deployed a document management and review tool from healthcare data services firm Veeva Systems. “This electronic workflow tool allows multiple people to review and comment on materials at once, in real time, making it possible to track comments toward adherence to any regulations and guidelines,” said Benagh.

“In the U.S., it allows us to submit almost directly into the FDA with all of our improvements, so it facilitates the process right through to approval.” Among the lessons he has taken away from past two years is that early in a launch, when coordination is critical, marketers should focus a lot less on KPIs and metrics around things like timing of approvals, how many rounds of review were needed, how many comments were there on a piece of content.

“I’ve been on campaigns where we've had 400 pieces that needed to be out within the first 30 days, 200 of them in the first 15 days, so being able to keep everything up and going gets that machine working as soon as you have approval. So, at least initially, you need to get things done and not worry about if it's been through two or five rounds of review,” he said. “It doesn't really matter as long as on day zero, you're able to launch and everything's ready to go."

Going forward, omnichannel strategies will become more important for Spikevax and other products. “If the pandemic taught us nothing else, it taught us that business can be conducted virtually or through digital channels. It's just a matter of getting the right message to the right person in the right way and time.”