This is a cross-post of something I wrote on LinkedIn.


It’s a treehouse rather than a strategy house but I still built it.

One of the most fun projects I’ve been involved in was the series of global Annual Brand Meetings we ran for a client. In partnership with the client we would come up with a theme for this 4.5-day meeting, build the agenda, organize workshops and liaise with other partners to build the room and the stage.

And of course write the slides.

Oh, the slides.

It was a Global Commercial Marketing-led event, with participation from affiliates around the world, and we would grapple with the Brand strategy and activation plans to address the challenges (and celebrate the successes) of the blockbuster product.

As a Writing team, we helped clients from Commercial, Medical and Market Access, from Global, the Regions and from selected Countries, put together their messages and presentations that recognized where we were, where we wanted to go, and—critically—how we were going to get there over the following 12 months. And we had to do all that in a manner that was clear, accessible, internally consistent, understandable across the global operation—and without killing people by PowerPoint. We had the opportunity to be reasonably creative with our slides, although people would often still try to cram too much into their presentation. A couple of times we even arranged some presentation skills training for them.

As I say, it was fun, if very hard work trying to balance all the conflicting demands of the different functions and personalities. On more than one occasion we’d deliver the showfile no more than 5 minutes before the scheduled start of a session, having been up most of the night putting the finishing touches on slides, before someone would come to us at breakfast and say “Oh, one last thing…”

One particular year just before the pandemic, the meeting had been reduced to 2.5 days to save budget. The theme of the meeting was ‘mountains’, because we were encouraging the entire Brand Team to make that final push for peak sales. Perhaps a little obvious, but we did get to play with some lovely photography and graphics concepts for the meeting.

And, because cramming the messages and value from four days into two and a half wasn’t enough of a challenge, someone made the decision (I honestly don’t remember if it was us or the client) to have slides made to fill the super-wide screen LED display that covered half of one wall of the 300-seater conference room.

For the most part, we used the centre of the screen for a standard 16:9 presentation and the outer parts for repeater screens and close-up video feed of the speaker. But for the intro talks in each session—i.e. the most senior presenters—we filled the screen. We are talking slides that were 4320 pixels wide and 940 deep. That’s more than four times wider than high, and a real challenge when you’re working on a tiny laptop screen.

Admittedly for most of those presentations we cheated a bit and had some static themed graphics either side, and only played with the middle third for content. We still had to contend with crammed graphs and tiny text supplied to us in standard PowerPoint and make them sing somehow, but it was doable.

Then as I was sitting in the slide room in the Barcelona conference centre, reflecting on 2 days of successful meeting and thinking about going and getting some dinner,the VP of Global Medical Affairs (the therapeutic area medical head) for this multi-billion dollar drug came up to me and said,


Now, I liked VPGMA. We’d done some great stuff together, and had some really good discussions about the product and what we were trying to achieve. So I was inclined to be sympathetic to his request. And then he told me what he wanted.

He was due to open the proceedings for the final day—recap the meeting so far, give a 10-minute Medical Affairs talk, and introduce the morning’s speakers. He’d seen the amazing slide work we’d done for his colleagues in the other functions, and didn’t want to give the standard data-heavy medical spiel.

So we had a chat about how we could just use graphics with key numbers highlighted, the fewest possible words, and fit it all in under 3 minutes with some animations to bring it seamlessly together.

Then he dropped the bomb.

“And I want it to be timed,” he said, pulling up an MP3 on his laptop, “so that the messages come on screen at the same time as the words in the song”.

We listened to the song and I searched up the lyrics.

“Sure,” I said, without knowing if it was even possible. “We can do that.”

“And I don’t want to click through. I don’t want to say anything after presenting the agenda. I want it to run automatically from start to end.”

“Across the entire screen?”

“Across the entire screen.”

Dear Reader, I learned a lot about animation timings in PowerPoint that evening.

I sat in the slide room with the rest of the writing team, and as the night wore on and one-by-one they finished their own “one more thing”s, they gathered around the wide-screen TV I was using as a second monitor. Every now and then I’d say “Right, here we go,” and test the next 20-second segment. There’d be the occasional comment, such as “You’re a little bit fast, there”, and I’d go and tweak that one slide and then check all the other timings that were affected, before running the animation again.

We were heartily sick of the song by the time, a couple of hours after midnight, I exported the file as an MP4 and sent it to VPGMA with a short note asking for his approval.

In the morning, I had to upload the video to the AV desk, and explain to the AV crew that no, the first part isn’t slides, you need to switch from the holding screen to the video, and then back to the slideshow for the next presenter. They got it eventually, and we even managed to test it—with 5 minutes to spare, of course.

And the best part of this entire story?

It’s the only time I’ve ever seen Head of Medical receive a standing ovation at a Brand—or any other—Meeting.


About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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