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Mergers and Managing Expectations: A Pharma Planner’s Tale

Meet Brian McArdle of Celgene, multiple-merger survivor and a chairperson of the upcoming Pharma Forum in New York.

For the 16th annual Pharma Forum conference set for March 8-11 in New York City, three industry chairpersons will help lead the 750-person event. They are Brian P. McArdle, strategic meetings management, global travel & meetings, for Celgene; Valli Chapjian, global meetings & events regional director, Americas, for AstraZeneca; and Sonal Humane, director of meeting management, research division, for Merck.

MeetingsNet previously spoke to Chapjian about her firm’s new strategic meetings management initiative and to Humane about how she is evolving her firm’s investigator meetings. In early February, we caught up with McArdle in to talk about the changes he’s seeing in the way his firm plans and executes meetings, and the ways that the medical-meetings niche is evolving as a whole.

McArdle is no stranger to change. Six times in his career, the pharmaceutical firm he worked for went through a merger or acquisition—most recently in November 2019, when Bristol Myers Squibb bought Celgene.

MeetingsNet: Over the next 12 to 18 months, what do you see as the biggest challenges for your new organization’s events and its planning department?
Brian McArdle: The merger between Celgene and Bristol-Myers Squibb was the third-largest merger or acquisition ever in our industry. Right now, we’re moving through the “getting to know you” phase, having discussions on what our meetings program will look like. But our challenge will be to blend two different meeting cultures into the most effective model for the combined company.

For instance, at Celgene we have a global program where most events are registered and spending is tracked regardless of whether the SMM teams in the U.S. or Switzerland are involved; it also includes events held at our on-site conference center in New Jersey. Also, Celgene was a fairly young company with an entrepreneurial spirit with regards to venues and locations for meetings. But at a certain point everything is going to adapt and become one system—and who will be making decisions on policy and sourcing? These things don’t get solved overnight; how all of this will evolve requires effective change management on both sides of the aisle. I’ve been through this a lot in the past, so hopefully I’ve learned some things that I can use.

MeetingsNet: What else are you dealing with that planners at other pharma firms also face?
Brian McArdle: For many years now, whether at Celgene or in my past, the ability to find quality venue and rooms availability has been a challenge. There is always the push and pull between the desire of a stakeholder in terms of a property or destination and the availability in that market. Short lead times do not help, nor do the competing priorities of a stakeholder and a potential hotel partner. But sometimes the wants of a stakeholder are just that: wants, not necessities. Educating internal stakeholders on what is realistic is something we continually do to manage expectations. We’re just trying to get expectations and reality as close together as possible.

MeetingsNet: As part of the content-creation team for the Pharma Forum 2020 conference, what do you see as the strengths of the event for attendees?
Brian McArdle: Any success I’ve had in my career can be traced to the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over the years, many of which are forged and deepened at events like Pharma Forum. Technology is terrific and data is terrific; both are necessary for planners to do their work effectively. However, nothing can replace the power of a strong relationship, and you don’t get that through technology or by simply letting data drive your decisions. 

Medical-event planning has always been a relationship business, and at Pharma Forum we’re in our comfort zone. While our companies may compete in certain therapeutic areas, that really doesn’t matter. We all deal with similar issues, and the ability to meet colleagues or partners or reconnect with old friends face to-face is invaluable. Nothing beats the power of a handshake and having a meaningful conversation in person. I’m really looking forward to it.

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