JPM: Sanofi's new chief digital officer steps up ambitions in marketing, research and even e-commerce

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson came on the job touting his digital hopes for the company, and now he's aiming to take the French drugmaker to digital level 2.0 with renewed ambitions and a new digital chief who joined from outside the industry.

Chief Digital Officer Arnaud Robert said Tuesday at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference that the digital challenges in the pharma industry are “quite real." Still, the opportunities at Sanofi are “greater than any company I’ve worked at” or in “any industry I’ve worked in.”

Robert, who came on board after serving as chief digital officer at Viking Cruises, envisions a shift in the overall culture at Sanofi wrought through digital tools and new ways of working. Earlier in his career, Robert worked at Disney and Nike.

His plans for the next two years? Increase patient engagement and digital marketing in specialty care, scale e-commerce for vaccines and incorporate data to improve return on investment in consumer healthcare. He also plans an "insourcing" effort in certain business areas after what he terms "years of over-reliance" on external partners.

RELATED: Sanofi, despite COVID-19, sees early gains from CEO Hudson's strategy revamp

Sanofi rebooted its “digital journey” last year, Robert said, by implementing a new leadership team and prioritizing its work. So far, the team has built an app in 6 weeks that can show sales across products and geographies; it incorporates AI to formulate sales forecasts. 

On the research side of the business, AI could play a “significant role,” Robert said. It’s still a “nascent” application, but there is a potential to speed up research with AI, he said. 

RELATED: Pharma marketing's digital reality finally took hold—and there's no going back 

Sanofi isn’t the only large drugmaker undertaking a digital push. Companies such as Pfizer, Merck & Co. and Novartis have appointed chief digital officers in recent years, and drugmakers are exploring a variety of ways to use new technologies to boost their operations. Novartis, for instance, has used an AI application to help sales reps with their doctor conversations. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated pharma’s digital marketing, too. Early in the crisis, drugmakers and agencies scrambled to launch digital initiatives that had either been waiting to be deployed or were new altogether. The digital marketing trend will continue in 2021 and beyond, Fierce Pharma Marketing predicts