From industry to agency-what I learned when I made the big leap

by Amy Kehoe

In early 2015, I knew it was time for a career change. After starting as a sales analyst, then completing an MBA and working as a product manager at a large pharmaceutical company, I had advanced to vice president of marketing at a smaller firm, and yet I was ready for something new.

It wasn’t supposed to be a job interview. My team had recently started working with Dudnyk, and I reached out to a contact there to have an informal is-there-a-role-for-someone-like-me-at-an-agency? type of conversation. The answer was yes. And, as it turned out, that role was vice president of strategic planning. 

After two years in this role, I’ve learned some fundamental truths about the dynamic relationship between industry and agency. For one thing, I realized more than ever the value of having the right agency partner. Here are three important things that I think all specialty pharma marketers should know, along with my advice for best choosing—and working with—a true agency partner.

1. The right agency team will have more marketing experience—and time to think—than you do

In industry, I usually worked in a single therapeutic area and often on a single brand for three to five years at a time. Sometimes these brands were launch brands, or brands at crossroads that needed re-positioning work. Sometimes they were brands that needed maintenance support. Once each year we re-evaluated strategy in the context of business planning. 

On the agency side, I work on multiple brands in multiple therapeutic areas at a time and at all stages of the product life cycle. Instead of using my positioning skills every few years, I use them every few months. Similarly, my colleagues and I develop strategies for multiple brands each year. The fundamental marketing skills that used to get dusted off every now and then for special occasions, I now use and hone regularly. 

One of my other challenges on the industry side was that there was always so much to do during working hours that I had to squeeze time out during evenings and weekends to actually think about my brand and my business. Now, my clients call to explain that they are in meetings around the clock, and they ask if I could please put some of my best thinking against an emerging business challenge. And now, I’m delighted to say, the answer is always yes. 

2. There really is creative magic that happens

There are a few talents that I do not have that I have always wished for. The first is to sing – I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. The second is to be creative. I am crafty, but not creative. As a quilter and a knitter, I can follow a pattern to make something, but I cannot envision something that wasn’t there before.

The creative team at Dudnyk can. It is amazing to be in a meeting and come up with an idea and then watch someone walk up to an easel and sketch it out. Or to attend a concept review and see a stunning and emotional visual that I never could have imagined that aligns perfectly with our strategy. It is truly magical and a pleasure to work with such talented colleagues.

3. Your agency cares about your brand as much as you do—maybe more 

In industry, I met only a handful of the people at the agency who worked on my brands – the account team, the lead creatives, and some senior leadership.  Yet in reality, every project is touched by many more people, each person striving to make your project achieve the highest quality that it possibly can. Project management is keeping the team on track to deliver on time. Editorial is scouring the pages to make sure every word and punctuation mark is correct. Science is making sure that every claim is strong and supportable. Production is figuring out how to bring the piece to life in print or digital. The creative team is pulling through client feedback. And the account team is making sure the piece ultimately delivers on the requirements of the brand. 

Just like the marketing team, the agency team works on the brand every day. In fact, some members of the agency team may have been working on the brand longer than those on the marketing team have. They may have uncovered the key insight that informed product positioning. It may have been their idea that eventually became the creative expression of the brand, or the color palette, or the articulation of the most important claim. They may have worked launch weekend to pull final PI changes through launch materials. They’ve missed kickboxing class, their kid’s baseball practice, and dinner with their spouse in order to deliver for the sales organization. Your brand is theirs, too, and they care about it more than you know.

So, what advice would I offer brand managers regarding working with agencies?

I’ve had the honor of developing some new marketers over the course of my career. Working with an agency is a skill that needs to be taught and developed. 

Sometimes we as marketers need to learn by making mistakes. Inevitably, a project will go over budget and timeline, and we can be quick to complain about the agency. Instead, I would offer my colleagues the following advice—advice that I believe in now more strongly than ever.   

  • The agency cannot read your mind. The brief matters, and agencies should be evaluating their work against that brief. If you do your work up front by ensuring the brief is specific, clear, and strategically sound, the agency will bring you good work quickly. Without a reliable brief, the agency can still bring you good work, but it will take longer and there will be more rounds of feedback (and headaches). A good agency will often give you a draft brief to review – spend the time to make sure it aligns with your needs and expectations.

  • When the agency has a different perspective than you do, listen. Strategic agencies think long and hard about their recommendations, and they may have knowledge or insight that has not yet been considered. 

  • It’s not about what you like, it’s about what will motivate the customer. Don’t evaluate the work of the agency against your own preferences. Evaluate the work against how well it delivers on your strategy and on the insights and feedback of your customer. 

  • Treat the agency as an extension of your team. Remember, the people at the agency care about your brand as much as you do. They work hard every day in support of your business. They want you to be successful. 

Ultimately, whether choosing an agency to partner with, or choosing an agency to go to work for, what is most important is choosing the right agency. 

When looking for the right agency to work with, think carefully about the experiences, skills, and competencies required for your brand to be successful. Spend time during the agency selection process making sure you are hiring the agency that you can best partner with and that can best support your brand. 

When looking for the right agency to work for, spend time during the interview process making sure that the work and the culture are a good fit for you. You will be working hard in support of your clients, and you want to be doing so with other talented and hard-working people. Make sure that you will have opportunities to learn and grow. 

For me, in both cases, that right agency was Dudnyk.