PR’s Top Pros Talk… Transitioning from Agency to In-House Communications
Monique Kelley, Neuroscience & US Commercial Operations Communications Lead, Takeda Pharmaceuticals
Monique Kelley, Neuroscience & US Commercial Operations Communications Lead, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, shares insights into her transition from agency to in-house communications. She offers advice on how to avoid setting a glass ceiling for yourself reaching your full potential. Monique also discusses how being a former athlete has helped her succeed in the workplace.
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About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: MONIQUE KELLEY
DOUG: Thanks much for being with us. And you may start by just sort of sharing what your responsibilities are at Takeda so people have some context.
MONIQUE: Sure, so I am the US Neuroscience and Commercial Operations Communications Lead, long mouthful, at Takeda Pharmaceuticals. And so, what that means is within our US group, we’ve got several different business units. And I lead communications, all facets, internal and external communications, for our neuroscience group. And the head of that group is also our COO. So, I work really closely with him, also for his executive visibility and communications for his commercial operations group.
DOUG: Yeah, and everyone has a different path to get to where they are. I think your path is interesting because it’s both from the agency side and now on the corporate side, I guess, with some neuroscience thrown in. So, you should be able to give us some good insights.
MONIQUE: Yeah, I think in terms of the path from agency to in-house, what’s interesting to me is that I’d spent 16 years on the agency side, all global top agencies, working with a lot of pharmaceutical companies, biopharmaceutical, all facets, but primarily the marketing communications for products. And so that was really my bread and butter for, god, 16, 17 years. And then going in-house, I had a very, I think, negative view, interestingly, of going in-house. I kind of felt like, well, let me try it at something new it’s something out of my comfort zone. So, that’s why I should pursue it and just get that experience. I had been an interim comms director for some of my clients. And so, in doing that, I was going through a lot of meetings, I was kind of really just letting the agency drive a lot of what I did. And so, that was my perception that going in-house might be a slower pace than the agency side. Not sure if I’ll get creative opportunities, but you know this opportunity to really work in communications for a pharmaceutical company that was growing with the acquisition of Shire is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I was pleasantly surprised from day one, being very clear on business objectives where I can fit in terms of the value I can bring. Takeda was at a position where it was evolving. It was growing with the acquisition of Shire to where external perspectives were very much appreciated and sought out. And so, I was able to develop creative content, put strategies down for social and digital strategy that had never been done before. It was actually quite the opposite that my agency background and the ability to just be nimble and roll up my sleeves and get things done with agency partners enabled me to lay the foundation for a lot that hadn’t been done there before. And so, it’s been a great transition.
DOUG: That’s cool. I think what’s interesting, would be interesting for our audience, is there anything and of course, each agency client relationship is different and unique, but are there any things you’ve taken away that oh, from my agency days, I wish I knew this? Maybe tips, advice you could give people on the agency side when working with pharma, things they should be thinking about maybe more than they do.
MONIQUE: 100%. Always thinking about where you can add value. Now that I’m in-house, I’ve been in-house now for two and a half years. The role to lead two business units came up after I was already in the neuroscience business unit running the communications there. A couple months later, the business unit lead became COO. And so, the ability to just be flexible and to adapt and to see where you can add your unique value. I mean, the majority of what I’ve been doing, at least for the first year during Covid, was internal comms. And executive visibility comms around DE&I and culture and really engaging our employees, keeping them engaged, even though we were all remote. That was not my background. My background was product communications, and on the agency side, I found that we were very siloed into our specialties, product, corporate, issues, person over here, you know, the digital social person, video. And so, I kind of became a jack of all trades. And so, being able to be flexible and adaptable to say, sure, maybe I’m not a specialist at executive comms, but using those same principles in terms of what is the audience, who are we trying to reach, how should we, making sure I understood good storytelling enabled me to jump right in in the trenches and do a lot of work that I hadn’t done before but do it well.
DOUG: Yeah, and that sounds like it’s interesting. So, and this could apply to the agency that clearly you need to have expertise in specific areas, but you need to have understanding in broader areas as the silos keep breaking down and communications evolve. One of the things I know you’re really passionate about is helping to make sure people reach their full potential. And sometimes you’ve been a little worried that people set up their own set of glass ceilings for themselves. How can you go about getting around, setting those limits for yourself and avoid that trap, if you will? Because it’s pretty common.
MONIQUE: Absolutely. So, after I graduated from Boston University, I had a communications degree, went straight to New York City, got a lot of agency experience. I found myself following a script like go to the agency side. see how you can get promoted, add value, get promoted. And you know I remember very early on in my career, my boss when I was at MSNL had asked me, “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” question. Which at the time I felt, oh ok, that’s a valid question. And I see myself doing her role as an account agency VP. And that’s pretty much what I set myself in terms of my goal. And then working through that, I ended up moving to Cohn & Wolfe, for a couple of years before joining Weber. And I was at Weber for almost 10 years. When I was at Weber, I actually became a VP, and this was 2010. And I remember thinking to myself, ok well now what? Because I had already set this bar for myself. And I thought, all right, I’m 28, I should feel like I have to do something, but I didn’t know what that something was. And so, that’s when I realized that, well, maybe it’s less about setting these “what are you going to do in 10 years,” and more about seizing the opportunities that you see in front of you. And so, I was lucky enough to work on a piece of business that was considered a client experience type business. And what that means is there are a few accounts that really had designated client experience leads. Usually these are the large accounts, lot of, dynamic parts, 20+ team members on it. You’re doing a lot of different things. And then being on that account for Eli Lilly and Companyfor years, I saw that there was a great opportunity to start learning, as you were saying, a little bit in other areas that I didn’t specialize in. And I had a really great manager who when I moved to Boston, she was the first person, I didn’t know at the time, but she was the first person to let the healthcare team know in Boston and the general manager that, hey, I want to see Monique move into a client experience lead. She’s been on this account, she’s doing a great job, maybe that’s the trajectory for her. And so, I had become an SVP, I think, in 2015. And then this extra role was added when I helped bring in a very high-profile piece of business that became the top revenue driver of Weber Shandwick, Boston. And then when I got to that point, I said, well, at this point, I’m not going to make a plan for myself. I’m sure some people out there would disagree that that’s probably not the best thing to do, but I kind of feel like what I plan, I set the bar really low, and I don’t want to do that anymore. And so, now I’m really after what’s going to help me get more knowledge, what’s going to help me to help others perhaps be in a position where I can help recruit, bring on other people, particularly other women of color in this industry, because Black leaders make up 1% of the PR industry from a Harvard Business Review stat I read in 2018. And so, that’s really now where I’m focused. And I think that the Takeda job came at a great time for me where I felt if I don’t take this, I’m going to always wonder if I would have loved in-house or not. I didn’t have that experience, but I left something really good. And it took me a while to realize that it’s okay to get out of your comfort zone. In fact, now I thrive off of not being comfortable and throwing myself in positions where I can really learn and grow.
DOUG: I really align with you, and I guess I don’t get too much dead poets society, carpe diem kind of thing on it, but I think career advancement to me at least, and it’s worked out okay. It’s less about okay, what am I going to be in 5 years or what I am going to be in 10 years, It’s how do you seize that opportunity when there are those moments of opportunity. And how do you prepare and making sure I think to avoid that glass ceiling trap, you just go all in on that. Now, you had a unique advantage in that you came to this with the experiences as a Division 1 track athlete. And how important is that background to success? And say for those who aren’t as super competitive athletes, whether you succeed at the Division 1 level like you or not even close like me, how do you sort of take in those same sort of motivations and ideas to help you advance?
MONIQUE: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot because I still do run, much slower and with all my injuries. But I’m still out there, including this morning running around the Charles River, which is crazy because that’s exactly what I did when I was training here for BU. So, I don’t live that far away. I think running especially, even if you don’t do it at the Division 1 level, it’s very independent. You’re accountable. If I were to stop running today for two weeks, the work that I put in, two weeks ago wouldn’t matter. So, it’s one of those things where you need to be consistent. Everyone can get better at it. And also, you learn to trust yourself in terms of accountability and independence. For me, being on the track team, you’re also accountable to a team. And so that’s why I really liked it, is that we all have to contribute. We all have to do our part. We all have to add value to the team. But yet we’re working as a team, and we all had that shared goal. And so even to this day, being in-house, I work with the neuroscience leadership team, the commercial operations leadership team, but also the US business unit communication. So, my peers in the other groups, other businesses. And I really appreciate that because I feel that same spirit of individual accountability, but working together, learning from each other, sharing information with each other exists at work. It’s just a different situation. I’m not doing drills and going up hills, but I’ll tell you, Summit Hill, I have yet to go back there, it’s in Brookline, Massachusetts. But Summit Hill was the worst training that I ever did at BU to the point where I would get like horrible butterflies in my stomach all day when I knew we had to do hill repeats on Summit Hill. And I did think to myself, maybe I should go back just to try it out, and I won’t. Because I swear PR and anything that I do, whatever is not nearly as hard as the training on Summit Hill. So, when things get crazy at work or there’s an opportunity that I really am not sure how to approach it, and I start to get stressed, I always think to myself, it could be Summit Hill. So, if it’s not that, I could do it.
DOUG: That’s a great attitude. Lots of really great insights for the viewers to share. Thanks so much for participating in the conversation. Really appreciate it.
MONIQUE: Thanks so much!