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    This is one of a series of contributions that provide useful insights and tips from experienced freelancers who already participate in the MedComms Workbook service. We hope you find it useful. If you make the move to freelancing then please do join us - and we wish you good luck with your venture!

    Trust me, I'm a Freelance Account Director
    By Liz Reader, posted 14 February 2017

    Back in the old days, freelance work was almost entirely the domain of writers and editors. But times have changed, and the increasing financial and resourcing constraints within agencies and a mini revolution in outsourcing (writers in India, who thought that would be a workable solution back in 1999?) now mean that freelance client services support is in strong and increasing demand.

    Agencies outsource client services for the same reason as editorial services: they have an immediate need, no internal resource and no hope of recruiting the right person in time to meet the demands of the project. Reasons vary from a newly won account to a requirement for a particular skill set or therapy area experience that cannot be found internally; perhaps it is a precious account where some extra TLC is needed to iron out some specific difficulties. I find that agencies will assign me because they want a pair of safe hands so the management team can focus elsewhere, or they need me to devote the time they don't have to support a developing team through the teething stages with a new client or project. Often though I'm filling a gap until a full time Account Director can be found - recruitment can be such a long drawn out process.

    In my experience, the main challenge with freelance client services is that you cannot be an Account Manager or Account Director without direct client contact - and agencies are understandably nervous about putting freelancers in front of their clients. You need to have an excellent relationship with your agency client so that they can trust you with their hard-won pharma client relationship. For this reason, the freelance work I have done over the last 9 years has been with a relatively small pool of agencies - the work has come either through ex-colleagues from my many years in-house with several agencies or via very strong recommendations. In the main, I have worked for just one or two agencies at a time and each project has lasted for 6 months or more - sometimes years. Often I am required to be in house, at least in the beginning, while I get up to speed with the project, the team and internal processes, with more flexibility and home working once working practices have been established.

    It can be a big investment in time and resource for the agency compared with outsourcing editorial work. But it's an investment that reaps immediate and long-term rewards for the success of the project, the account, the team and the client-agency relationship. Before you are introduced to the client, they need to bring you up to speed on the project, the client, the background 'politics', the financial intricacies, their sales strategy, the account and client teams, internal processes and so on. In the same way, each agency client is a big investment for the freelance account manager - as with all things medcomms, it's a small world and relationship building is key.

    The ideal freelance projects are where there is a clear demarcation of roles and responsibilities and a clear end point, so events, meetings, website launches etc all work well. This way, both the client and the internal team understand your role and there is a clear exit strategy for all concerned to ensure maintenance of the agency-pharma client relationship. I have also worked on rolling projects including publications planning and general communications plan delivery, primarily for companies where I have a long history so I know the internal processes - there is a tendency here for a freelancer to become very embedded in the team and are seen as integral by the pharma client. Beyond this, I have been involved in one-off pitches and general business development.

    Business development is an interesting one - for a couple of years, it represented the majority of my freelance work. It is so integral to a company's success and you are privy to such confidential information that one would imagine agencies would be loath to share business development even with a trusted outsider; however, where an agency is busy delivering sold business and maintaining ongoing client relationships, it is often the first thing to drop off the in-house team's to-do list. My business development involvement has ranged from cold calling potential new clients (with a list of names provided by the agency, never my own contacts), through credentials and pitch presentations (accompanied by agency staff), budget and contract negotiations and kick off of the new business.

    I've always worked on a daily rate, rather than a project rate or any sales-related bonus scheme. I've never felt that a project rate is right - with the best will in the world, too much is out of my control to estimate hours with reasonable accuracy, and if the project goes awry for any reason, it would be me who spends the extra time putting it right. Similarly, I can work my socks off in a business development capacity but whether I win business for the agency or not is never fully within my control.

    Freelance Account Direction is a great way to make a living though: I still have the same high level of interaction as I would with an in-house client services role, and I have the endless variety of projects, clients, products, teams that makes me buzz, but with the flexibility of freelancing so that I can enjoy the work-life balance that is often missing for client services leads within an agency. The downside: don't expect to be given the most interesting or exciting projects, those are usually kept in house and be prepared for peaks and troughs in the workflow, much more so that freelance writing / editing.

    Right, off on the school run...

    Liz Reader
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