A little over 20 years ago, HRW founders Caroline Jameson, David Thomson, and Teresa Church were discussing how they could each leverage and combine their knowledge and network within their fields of expertise (market research and pharmaceuticals) to start a business that would have an edge on its competitors and deliver powerful insights to access the reality of the healthcare landscape.
Today, we sit here beaming with joy as we celebrate the 20th anniversary since HRW first opened its doors… and what a journey it’s been! To celebrate this momentous occasion, we wanted to journey back to where it all began, and ask the founders how the idea of HRW came about, what obstacles have we faced along the way, and what the future holds or HRW…
Join us in celebration by reading this article and learn first-hand how hard work, dedication, perseverance, and belief truly can provide life changing results.
When did the lightbulb moment happen that started HRW?
David Thomson: “We were doing a lot of work on consumer-packaged goods or FMCG, and we thought at the time a lot of the methodologies, principles, and practices we were using would be applicable to OTC (over-the-counter) medicines. We knew a lot about market research, but we didn’t know an awful lot about pharma, which is how the conversation came about between us and Caroline, who was very knowledgeable about the space and had a big network within it. It’s funny though, because we hadn’t really thought about pharma in quite the way it has panned out- it’s gone beyond our original vision of OTC. So, to answer your question, that was pretty much our lightbulb moment, and like most lightbulb moments they usually end up being a bit wrong in hindsight- but it didn’t lead to somewhere wrong and that’s a fact!”.
At one point did you start to realise the company was a success?
Teresa Church: “Well Caroline had a huge network and she’d been in the industry for quite a few years, hadn’t you Caroline?”
Caroline Jameson: “Yes but it took a long time actually. I’d say it was quite easy to open doors because I knew a lot of people and I did a lot of cold-calling, and David and I got on the road and went out to talk to people. As time went on, I suppose we tweaked the offering and were doing our own research, whilst we were talking to potential clients and looking at what the needs would be. It definitely took some time to get the first job, around 10 months I’d say for a project nicknamed ‘Monster’ which was a segmentation, followed by a qual project (which David wasn’t so sure about), and another quant segmentation. It’s funny looking back now because we didn’t have a huge team of healthcare researchers at that point we were going out there trying to get the clients then it was like if we win the job, we’ll work out how we do it! We then sort of looked who would be a good person within MMR to help us and who was motivated to do so. You can say we purchased some help from MMR on an ad-hoc basis that helped us through projects until such time we were getting more work in and could actually get our own, dedicated team”.
David Thomson: “I don’t think there was ever a point where we thought this is make or break. We were always in it for the long term. If you take a short-term view of these things you would crack before they’re ever successful, and what seems to be success is not a threshold, it’s more of a gradual build up. You slowly become more and more confident about what you’re doing and then of course you get knockbacks, but over that period you progress. I feel success is something that you look back on. You eventually get a feel for your clients; how are they reacting to the work you’ve delivered to them? How are they reacting to the proposals you put to the presentations you give? Then you build up a sense of what is working and what isn’t- so it’s not a smooth road but slowly it builds”.
If any, what were some obstacles you faced along the way?
Caroline Jameson: “I think there were numerous obstacles, there always are with business. One of the challenges was winning business in the early days, we were up against ‘big boys’ who were in the market for a while. Also, finding the right people! Any business is only successful if it’s got the right people and that was crucial to HRW. And the two go hand in hand; you need to have the right people with the right skill sets, aptitudes, and attitudes to be able to believe in the business and want to go out there and shout about the business against quite tough odds really. To get good people to buy into a start-up company is quite a tall order so that was probably one of our biggest obstacles in the beginning”.
Teresa Church: “Also, when you’re dealing with big companies, they have all sorts of things going on so they might change the way that they commission research for instance, so we had a few cases like that which makes it more difficult to win projects”.
David Thomson: “I think one of the things I didn’t quite appreciate at the start of all of this was that if you think about the people that work for MMR or other consumer research companies, those people are good researchers but with pharma if you don’t know your category you’re finished. You can’t be in a room with people that are specialists and not have some pharmaceutical and healthcare knowledge. As a scientist, I think that makes it a little more interesting”.
Christine Dalzell: “The biggest hurdle I think was moving from the retail environment to the ethical environment and all of its restrictions; the way you refer to things, not speaking about customers… the language is different so you have to understand what’s possible vs what’s not possible. Once you’re over that hurdle, learning the different therapy areas is easier, although there are complex issues with treatments and things like that… there’s always nuance there”.
How would you describe the dynamics of HRW? What is the secret of your success?
(everyone shouted PEOPLE)
Christine Dalzell: “PEOPLE. Everybody wants to get good people, but I think the community we create with those people fosters creativity and excitement for what we do and deliver, and the clients really feel we can bring them something that they can be passionate about because we’re passionate about it and have thought it through (sometimes too much). You know we’ve always really gone the extra mile and put that energy into making it creative and useful”.
Caroline Jameson: “It’s not just a job to the people that are doing it and it’s not just a project that they’re delivering either, it’s a complete immersion and belief in the whole thing and the passion that goes with it”.
Teresa Church: “This is recognised in the industry- the team regularly contribute conference papers and presentations, and these successes where you share your knowledge (and gain a lot of praise for it) are really rewarding in itself”.
Christine Dalzell: “The intellectual curiosity that goes along with that is why our innovation is so strong, and why we can have whole “innovation days” with enough things to talk about for 6 hours… so people are excited about that and it shows!”
And looking back, are there any specific moments or memories that have stuck with you?
David Thomson: “Mine was when we won our first job because keeping the faith for those first 10 months was difficult and something we had to work on, but we believed, persevered and thank god we did!”.
Caroline Jameson: “Gosh highlights… there has been so many! Obviously, I’ll never forget the night that we won ‘Agency of the Year’ for the Which was just amazing, and I was just extremely happy. There were momentous occasions, one of which when we opened our first office in London and there was just one person there to get that going. The other was making the decision to open a US office which was absolutely the right thing to do and discussing long and hard about how we were going to do that to give it the best chance of success, what the business model would look like in the US, and how that would work for HRW. Then taking that step for me go out there for 1 year to set it up and ultimately find Christine!
Christine Dalzell: “Oh yes that’s right. I came through a headhunter who sent me the job description and then I just thought, yes please! And then I had a phone conversation with Caroline and for me, walking into the room and meeting her and Jeannette in person was just like, CLICK! That was it.”
Caroline Jameson: “There was absolutely no doubt, and I knew Christine was the right person. Obviously that step of spreading our wings and being able to be truly global because we understood we needed that US presence and that made a huge difference to HRW’s potential future success. And obviously I wouldn’t have been able to step down as Global MD and hand over if I hadn’t found the right person so YAY!”.
What do you see in the future for HRW?
Caroline Jameson: “I see us going from strength to strength”.
Teresa Church: “With the pandemic, the world has changed enormously; the way people think, live, and work… so I think there is always an opportunity when there is a challenge so I’m sure the team will meet those challenges. And I think it’s quite interesting the way people don’t go to the doctor as much anymore; they have all these gadgets that measure and monitor, and they speak to the doctor virtually, so I think it is a changing world for pharma. I think everything will be much more tech driven for sure. People are losing their budgets to Oxford at the moment because of AstraZeneca and various other things that are going on. The medics I’ve spoken to recently said ‘there’s a giant leap of 10 years forward in their research programmes’ so I think people are feeling very empowered about the future in Oxford”.
Christine Dalzell: “I think we’re going along as we have been which is maintaining the drive for knowledge and innovation, and every year we make decisions about what that looks like and what that looks like next year and looking ahead for 3 years. It is a changing world so we will be coming to the table soon right around the 20th anniversary to look at the next future step now that we have tremendous momentum coming out of this and we’re going to leverage it for future growth”.
By Christine Dalzell, David Thomson, and Teresa Church