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Consultancy : The dark side?

Far from being a dance with the devil, working in consultancy can be beneficial to a marketer's career

Time spent on the consultant's side of the fence is a big plus in a pharma marketing career.For most pharmaceutical marketers, true career planning is not something that is very structured, or even thought about. The tried and tested route through a science degree, to a spell on the road as a rep, followed by the move into product management, and then climbing the greasy pole to more senior marketing positions, is something they assume will be the secret to future success.

As this is such a well-worn road, few consider stepping off it to try another route. This is strange because, while the traditional path works for some, many more can end up frustrated that they are not fulfilling their potential or achieving what they feel they are capable of.

As our industry rationalises, centralises and consolidates, this situation could well become more common. Fewer firms means fewer opportunities to gain a variety of experience, which - in the long run - is bound to hold back a career.

I'm not going to suggest that there is a magic bullet to overcome this problem, but it has always been a mystery to me why so few great marketers are reluctant to step outside the industry to spend a period (or indeed, the rest of their career) in consultancy.

Now, at this point I should declare that I have an interest. I am a director of the MSI Consultancy, which specialises in helping the pharmaceutical industry. Yes, this gives me a partial view; but I have also worked on the client side and genuinely believe that many pharma marketing careers, especially those of the most talented people, could be massively boosted by spending some time on the other side of the fence.

Rapid advance

It's difficult to think of anywhere else you could accelerate your career as rapidly and as comprehensively as in consulting. The equivalent of years of experience can be gained in a relatively short period of time, as well as new skills and the kind of networks that most marketers would only dream of.

So what motivates someone to step outside the 'safety' of the industry (although I would contend this is now a fallacy) and into consultancy? What are the benefits and pitfalls? And why do so many in our industry view - wrongly - that such a move is career suicide?

To find out, I spoke to two new colleagues, both of whom have recently taken the plunge. They are both experienced pharma marketers, with gold standard careers within the industry. Neither has been forced through circumstance to seek employment in consultancy; both took the decision positively.

Dr Richard Jones joined MSI in May after a career spanning 20 years in the pharmaceutical sector, most recently as international marketing manager in the GI unit at Shire Pharmaceuticals. So why did he decide to make the move at this point in his career?

I worked within a rapidly growing pharma company for a number of years in various senior marketing and commercial positions, and had reached a point where I was looking for totally different challenges. I had been approached by other pharma companies with offers of senior international roles within global teams, but I saw the challenges being very similar to what I had already faced, albeit for differing brands/therapeutic areas, he said.

By moving to a role in consultancy, I felt I would be exposed to many different companies and get a better understanding of different operational models and modus operandi. I would also be exposed to many different challenges through the various and varied projects I would be working on, and at differing levels - global teams, local teams, market shaping, re-launching brands and so on. I saw this as a great opportunity to have a broader experience base and to attain a fuller understanding of this industry.

Although at an earlier stage in his career, Michael Salmon is also keen to expand his marketing and strategic skills set beyond his brand manager experience. After five years at AstraZeneca - including winning their annual Marketing Excellence award in 2005 - he became a consultant with MSI in July.

I feel consultancy experience will provide me with broader skills through working with multiple companies and projects, and hence will be more employable in the long term. A consultant role can also allow you to go deeper and specialise in the areas that you prefer - for example an area of marketing like quantitative marketing.

With consultancy you are able to work with multiple companies and therapy areas in a short time frame. Another advantage is that you do more thinking as opposed to doing - the latter being a predominant part of brand management.

Not for everyone

It has to be said that working in consultancy is not for everyone. It is certainly a different way of working, and although the perception that consultants work longer and harder than their industry colleagues may not be entirely accurate, the nature of the job means that there are probably more immediate commercial pressures.

The flip side to this is a world which is far removed from the politics and strictures of big company life: a significant attraction for some who make the move.

To a certain extent, you can dictate your working environment and eventually determine your projects, said Jones. This is different to working in the industry - although it does depend very much on your client's demands. However, your life revolves less around emails and meetings, and involves more thinking and analysis.

You need to be prepared to 'close' potential sales as a consultant to maintain and open new accounts. This is essential, as no matter how good a consultant you are, you are only successful if you get the business. In the industry, the customer/client sets are mainly internal, and while ideas and recommendations are 'sold', the transactions are normally not financial. Therefore, a consultant needs to be prepared to sell and go after the business.

Fear factor

Perhaps the biggest fear is that moving across to consultancy will close the door to returning to the industry at some stage in the future. In reality, this concern is unfounded;
I have seen many people successfully build up their skills sets in consultancy before taking them back into the industry, usually at a much more senior level than before.

I have no concerns about moving back into pharma companies; consultancy experience would be a huge advantage, said Salmon. It will allow me to develop contacts in multiple companies, and an understanding of multiple therapy areas. It will also potentially open doors in more strategic roles or higher level roles in pharma companies as opposed to pure marketing roles.

Jones concurs: There is a tendency to view the agency side as the 'dark side', with associated connotations. Having stepped over the line, there is a fear of not being able to cross back. I personally do not share this fear, and indeed see having consultancy experience as a key factor in my personal development plan which will benefit me greatly in the future.

The key point here is that those who succeed in their careers and get where they want to go have a plan - what Richard Jones calls his 'personal development plan'. This forces you to work out what skills, experience and networks you need to build up to achieve what you want to (and indeed identify what those goals are in the first place).

Although it won't be for everyone, a period spent working in consultancy, gaining a much wider variety of experience and skills, as well as the commercial nous which becomes more and more vital the further up the corporate tree you want to go, can be very beneficial.

Although the fear does exist that leaving the industry will be an irreversible step, the opposite is true; the skills and experience you gain working alongside multiple clients makes you more attractive to future employers. And that's the best way of avoiding that frustrating career stagnation in a role which is under-utilising your abilities.

The Author
Dr Paul Stuart-Kregor is director of the MSI Consultancy. He can be contacted at

9th August 2007


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