Ex-AOL TimeWarner CEO Levin on DTC in health care

Jerry Levin, former CEO of AOL TimeWarner was interviewed on stage at the DTC National Conference in Boston this morning by Steve Krein, CEO of OrganizedWisdom, where Levin serves on the board.

In this excerpt from the discussion, Levin discusses:

  • His personal interest in personalized health care information after his diagnosis with Parkinson’s
  • Lessons for health care from the disruption of the music industry
  • How direct to consumer (DTC) marketers can get directly into the flow when patients are making decisions
  • Why Jane Fonda told him, “Don’t f— with my husband!”

Steve Krein: Why are you here?

Jerry Levin: I have devoted my life to storytelling, mostly in entertainment and news. But I overlooked the fundamental stories of people’s lives.

What is most elegant and important is understanding the uniqueness of every individual’s story and respecting that, enabling them to live a life with integrated body, mind and spirit in a way we haven’t seen before.

I had a personal transformation. At a mental health facility I’m involved with our mission statement is, “Entrance to a human soul is a sacred honor.” What we celebrate is that everybody is unique. Basically I’m here because that’s what I think is most important. It’s finding a way to understand the desire that people have to take control and express themselves and to understand what’s most fundamental to their happiness. That’s health and wellness

At HBO we said if we really work at this we could eventually replace the central library of Alexandria. That’s the challenge today in health care.

Krein: The health care industry is at a moment of disruption. What happens when an industry goes through disruption?

Levin: In the music industry we were riding high with music sales as the technology moved from 45s to 78s to CDs. Then all of a sudden there was Napster and the Internet where people could get any song, any time, at their convenience. Meanwhile the model of the multibillion-dollar music industry is we’ll deliver the album, pick the songs, and you have to buy it. The A side and less desirable B side are packaged right into the album.

The CD was essentially centrally driven, not taking into account the individual consumer’s taste.

The reason people are so slow to change is because there are years invested in doing things the same way and that’s primarily how the money flows through the system. And then here’s this rolling thunder –like a freight train—and you don’t see it because of your vested interest in what’s been happening. Instead of embracing it, you try to prevent it from happening.

What we see today is that you can buy any music you want. And smart people have embraced the technology and made a new music industry.

The malls are increasingly emptying out. Amazon is now challenging Costco and Wal-Mart.

All of a sudden social media can either negate or endorse a film. Now studios have basically embraced the technology so social media is an integral part of marketing the movie.

The combination of Internet and digital media is a worldwide phenomenon that gives consumers convenience, choice, and control. Not only is nothing going to stop it but it’s time to embrace it.

Krein: What can the people in this room do to take advantage of this moment of disruption?

Levin: I’ll give a personal example. We have these tools now to give to people in times of panic and change. In a moment of diagnosis, what does everyone do when they leave the doctor’s office? They go home and Google what the doctor told them.

In response they get a chaotic algorithmic frenzy of stuff that doesn’t relate to their particular issues.

Here’s my example.  Four years ago, my wife said I should go to a neurologist.  So I went to a neurologist because I’m a good husband. Within a half hour the neurologist says, “I think you have Parkinson’s.”

It seemed so outlandish to me that I researched the Internet. It was a lonely, frightening experience because all this stuff was rolling in and I had no clue as to how valid this information was and what applied to me. It led to a mild despair and depression.

I did what most people do: I changed doctors and picked a research-oriented person. The diagnosis was confirmed through one test. But then it became clear to me when I had access to certain research –that migrant farm workers exposed to pesticides had a high incidence of Parkinson’s –and I’m now totally organic and vegan.

In Europe there is research on a blood pressure drug called Isradipine (thank you Glaxo), and none of those people had Parkinson’s.

So I got in touch with a lot of learning available to my particular case and it was very satisfying. I have a whole regimen. I’m taking control of my own health, taking advantage of what’s online, but it’s highly directed.

If you go and see what people are searching on moment-to-moment, it’s much more contextual. People have very specific needs for themselves and their families, but they’re groping, trying to fit in to Google long-tailed searches. That’s when we should give them something really meaningful to their condition.

Krein: How might a DTC marketer look to close the health gap between doctor visits and the Internet?

Levin: You’re the industry of communications connecting the individual to some solution and there are tried and true ways it’s been done in the past: through advertising and detail specialists.

There’s now a tremendous opportunity… Your database, which is intrinsic in your marketing program, needs to flourish in a way that’s much more related to an individual who has issues that need to be addressed on an individual basis. It’s time to be innovative about it.

You represent the vested interests of the health care industry. I’d also like to see entrepreneurial efforts. I say that knowing how much I’ve failed in turning a big ship (TimeWarner) around. It’s very hard when you have a legacy form of finance and culture, but an injection of entrepreneurship can help.

The most exciting thing in downtown Manhattan is the new digital startups, but there’s not much in health care. What’s striking to me is there are very few of these entrepreneurs in downtown Manhattan who are in the health care space. There must be a lot of reasons for that.

Krein: What was it like to work with Ted Turner and other genius minds in business?

Levin: Ted Turner is the most explosive, expansive individual I’ve ever met.

The first time I met him I was young person working on HBO. Ted came into my little office. In two seconds he was standing on my desk shouting at me. In about 10 minutes I barely said a word.

It was clear to me that with his type of personality nothing was going to stop him from putting this Atlanta TV station up on the satellite.

Eventually it became clear to me that what he had done with CNN was really important. At the time, Jack Welch from GE and Rupert Murdoch from News Corporation were circling around CNN. I thought that was not a good thing, that really CNN should be housed in a company with a journalistic culture like Time. So I called him up and said, “Ted I’d like to visit you at your ranch outside Bozeman, MT.”

At the time there was concern about the cable industry interfering with CNN.

I got off the plane, and instead of Ted meeting me, Jane Fonda drives up in a 4 wheel drive truck. There’s a deer in the back of the truck that she had shot. Now she gets out of the truck and I get out of the plane.

The first thing she says to me is: “Don’t f— w/my husband!”

I thought, oh my goodness, I’m not here to persuade Ted Turner, I’m here to persuade Jane Fonda.

Krein: Over the last decade, tremendous budgets have gone to just a few players, such as WebMD. Now there is a shift of pharma budgets to startups. Why do you think pharma is shifting and what can be done to shift more budgets to smaller more entrepreneurial outlets?

Levin: It’s an evolution to something highly specific and almost transactional: getting to someone in a relationship when they’re ready to do something or buy something. This is the Holy Grail: to get those individuals when they are in that position. You need finely tuned communications with a corresponding measurement system.

There’s an opportunity for what used to be the advertising business to be in the transaction business, where people are actually making a buying decision and you’re right there with them.

April 7, 2011

2 thoughts on “Ex-AOL TimeWarner CEO Levin on DTC in health care”

  1. Pingback: Health Wonk Review –April 14, 2011 | Health Blog

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