Reporter, European Medical Journal
This interview took place at the Ageing Societies event held by The Economist, earlier this year in November. The 2-day event consisted of a series of talks and discussions on the opportunities and challenges of an ageing world. Also at the event was Atilla Cansun, the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of Merck Consumer Health, to talk more about Merck’s upcoming WE100 project.
This interview has been condensed and edited for the purposes of length and clarity.
Q: What is WE100?
A: WE100 is a dream, a vision of our company, to help prepare society for the era when humans live to 100 years. It is a dream where generations help each other out, so our motto is: “Young for Old, Old for Young”, as a way of co-existing and learning from each other. It is supposed to be a dream that will turn into reality and this is why for the past 6 months, we have been working on turning WE100 into concrete projects.
We have tapped into the two ends of the spectrum, from aged 0–100. It is from 0–11 or 12 that I think we have spoken about as the most influential years, where you can teach kids and prepare them for a 100-year-long life. At the same time, we do a lot of research with people aged 60–89 as the core target group for WE4You, our volunteering programme involving Merck employees going out and connecting with the elderly to enable them to participate in the thrill of life, to enable them to step out of their routines, and to show them there is always time for a first time. Ultimately this enables two ends of this spectrum, the two generations, to better connect with each other.
Q: How are you involved with WE100?
A: I am the Chief Marketing Officer so I am a part of the executive committee. I am of course, a part of the discussions deciding where to place our focus and on which territories. We decided that out of the different options we had, these two – the Healthy Hour, educating kids for the future, and WE4You, volunteering for the elderly – would be the most impactful to start with.
My responsibility has been to meet with colleagues on different platforms to explain ourselves and so at this point I think my main role is less so in doing the project but more so in making it heard amongst bigger masses to get people’s support as well as thinking about people and institutions that would like to join the movement, out of the goodness of their hearts. We are not going be looking for what is going to be the ‘pay-out’ for the insurance company, the institution, the government as we believe that is not the right way of thinking about it. We would like to join forces with others who whole-heartedly believe that they could take part in this journey and feel good about themselves, as we do.
Q: What are the Healthy Hour and WE4You initiatives? When and where will they launch?
These are the two priorities. The Healthy Hour is a course that is specifically working on territories that we believe are essential for kids to be aware of about their bodies to be able to run this marathon of 100 years. When vacation ends at the beginning of February  in South Africa, so when they come back from their summer holidays, it will get started in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa.
For WE4You, this a volunteering programme involving the elderly which we have already started amongst our own employees. The part that is for the outside world is coming January (2017) at which point you will have couples going out and doing their activities, picking from a list of territories (…) that are desirable, affordable, and achievable. We will start the journey with them having the experience and then, as of March, we will start to communicate the individual stories.
Q: What is your call-to-action to get people involved in the project?
A: We could be doing hundreds of different things but (WE100) was the one that we felt very passionate about and which we also got a lot of positive feedback during our research from patients, consumers, and professionals who felt very good about it. There are millions of healthcare professionals out there who are great at what they are doing but also love the thought of stepping out of [their routine] and, let’s say, going for a couple hours of the week down the street to a primary school and teaching. So, for them it is really going to be them thinking: I help prepare these kids for a new era where they are expecting to live for 100 years or more (…) so, here is your chance to make a huge difference and invest in the future.
For the rest of us, who are not healthcare professionals, I think it becomes a very personal question to ask, passing the word on to others, to change our own attitude, and to find our role in this new era. So, depending on whether you classify yourself as young or old, you can look to the younger or older generation and look at them with the mindset of removing any barriers, where age does not matter, enabling everybody to bloom and bring their own contributions the best that they can. So, my plea, my motto, is to enable ‘Old for Young, Young for Old’ and for people to not give into prejudices, making your own experiences, and opening up for something magical to happen. If you were to get advice from an elderly person, rather than always talking amongst your peers or equally, getting a fresh, new perspective of a millennial 25 years younger than you and being open to it, removing the hierarchies for them to be able to raise their voice and give feedback to you, that is going to make a huge difference. I am personally a believer of it, I try to use it at work, in my sports, in my family life, in the building where I live, to take the time for, regardless of their age, anybody who can have an influence on me by listening to their story, and open up to what happens, where great things happen.
Q: Practically speaking, how can healthcare professionals take the next step to get involved with WE100?
A: The best thing to do is to reach out to their Merck representative who they can look up on the Internet or speak with when they come to visit them. Heidi Gresle, the general manager (of Merck Consumer Healthcare, UK), is a big fan of (WE100) and has been from the first day we talked about it. Out of all the countries, we picked the UK and so she is blessed with it and so I am sure she will make great use of whoever wants to join in.
Q: Is there a specific change that you would personally most like to see as the result of WE100?
A: For my own self, it has already made a big change in very simple things like my posture, how I stand, how I work, and it has changed my awareness that I need to prepare my body for much: much longer work-time probably, then 65, now 67 [age of retirement] in Central Europe. It has given me a lot, I have taken some time with a personal trainer to think about how I am working, how I am driving, how I am running, to not hurt my body and comfort it as much as possible. For sure it has made a difference and I have benefited from it a lot.
As part of the leadership team for WE100, I would love to be able to, over the next 18 months or so, make this thing so infectious and viral that we have no choice but to roll it out ten plus countries and it becomes the talk of the town. There is for sure a sweet-spot where people do not believe governments’, big institutions’, or corporations’ education systems are ready but somebody needs to take care of this, so there is a very real issue that is unsolved. This is something very concrete and I am hoping that it becomes bigger and bigger in the next year and a half and we have at least ten countries and not only the two, [the UK and South Africa], that we have talked about.
For the UK, my wish is to be able to talk to the Queen. I love her. She just celebrated her 90th birthday a few months ago and what she exudes, the way she looks at life, her connection to life, animals, and people is very inspiring to me. So, I would love her to recognise and take WE100 seriously and connect with us about ways she can be a spokesperson, a role model, and inspire so many millions of others in the UK who might need that spark of inspiration to get out there and try something for the first time, or going back to work.