Profile: Markham on a mission - Gill Markham, UK corporate affairs director, Wyeth

Behind the security gates of drugs giant Wyeth's Thames Valley offices, where each stranger's arrival is monitored and every car's registration logged by reception, there's a corporate affairs director on a mission.

'If you are Big Pharma, you have big responsibilities. Wyeth's reputation at the moment is as a bit of an unknown quantity,' asserts Gill Markham, a straightforward pharma PR stalwart.

'We're the third largest pharma company in the UK - we have opinions. And if we haven't, we should have,' she declares, confidence no doubt buoyed by a top prize won at a pharma awards bash the previous night.

US-headquartered Wyeth is the behemoth behind brands such as Zoton and Efexor, controversial HRT drug Premarin and consumer health products such as Anadin and Centrum.

A 'born and bred Newcastle lass' (there's no hint of Geordie in her diction), Markham's first job was as a teacher in the 1970s ('it was the time of bovver boots - but I was no bovver booter'). She moved south aged 22, doing youth work in Merton in South West London: 'We were working with sink-bin kids; we had to defend them in court.'

Markham was introduced to the pharma industry by her husband, getting work as a sales rep for Lederle Laboratories - now, coincidentally, merged with Wyeth. But after two years she wanted a fresh challenge and, in 1979, joined three-strong PR outfit Counsellor in High Wycombe as an account executive.

It was an inspired switch: she stayed with the agency, in its various guises, for 22 years. She was promoted through the agency and, in 1987, began a 12-year spell as MD of what had become H&M Counsellor. Turnover rocketed from £300,000 to £2.1m during her tenure at the top.

In 2000, Markham joined Wyeth, grabbing a corporate affairs job occupied by a retiring 43-year company lifer. A shake-up was needed. 'There were a number of agencies doing fairly low-grade programmes - one of those was us (H&M), really,' she recalls.

One of the agencies working with Wyeth then - and which continues to do so - is Interaction Marketing and PR, whose MD Karen Rowe says: 'Some PR people are full of puff - Gill is not. She'll call a spade a spade.'

Markham doesn't appear to miss her latter agency days. When asked whether she would consider moving on from Wyeth, she replies: 'Not back into the agency world - here I don't have to worry about things like the roof falling in.'

In a rare slip into jargon, Markham says 'we need to start owning our relationships with the media', citing journalist meet and greets as initiatives she has instigated. Meeting journalists is hardly ground-breaking PR.

The fact that Markham flags up such a development illustrates a bashfulness among pharma PROs that does not limit itself to Wyeth.

Can she succeed? One pharma PRO observes: 'Wyeth previously did very little (external UK PR). Gill is in an environment that wants change but the UK media aren't as interested in the drugs firms from the US - unless they're Pfizer.'

Markham says: 'The press don't want a good-news story but we (the pharma industry) have been very bad at telling the world how good the new wave of drugs is. There is work to do.'

One such new Wyeth drug is Enbrel, and Markham sits next to a framed Daily Mail front page ('Cocktail of drugs can beat arthritis') from June.

'Super' is how she describes that story - part of said cocktail is Enbrel.

Markham has a teenage son, enjoys Italian food and pets (she has house-trained the family rabbit). For holidays, she enjoys an annual sojourn to her husband's native South Africa.

Returning to her theme, Markham spells out her PR credo: 'If a journalist calls, you need to give a solid answer. Pharma PROs are often too defensive.

Wyeth will be more proactive.'

Robust talk in a sector not immune to head-down myopia.

RESUME

1977: Medical rep, Lederle Laboratories

1979: Account executive, Counsellor

1980: Account manager, Counsellor

1985: Deputy MD, Counsellor

1987: Managing director, H&M Counsellor

1999: Managing director, H&M Healthcare Communications

2000: UK corporate affairs director, Wyeth

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