explore icon
  • Hour glass icon18 minutes

Working at Notch Communications

Dr Kate Whelan discusses her work as Chief Operating Officer (COO) & Head of Notch Scandinavia at Notch Communications.

  • Name: Kate Whelan
  • Current position: Chief Operating Officer (COO) & Head of Notch Scandinavia
  • Organisation: Notch Communications
  • Size of workforce: 25 employees
  • Date of interview: August 2020
Headshot of Kate Whelan.

Tell us about your organisation 

We are a full-service marketing agency for companies working in the life sciences. Our clients could be companies of any size, so they range from start-ups to huge international companies, and they’re primarily in Europe and the US. 

They are typically companies who develop lab equipment, lab reagents, materials, fine chemicals – either materials that pharmaceutical companies would use to develop their drugs, or raw materials for them, or the equipment that they might need to research and develop their drugs. 

We also do a lot of work with companies to provide services for drug developers, so they might be clinical research organisations, or contract-manufacturing organisations. 

So what we do with clients i starts with helping them think about their brand and the strategy. We do a lot of insight work, helping them to understand what is different about their brand or the products they’re selling. 

How can we differentiate them from their competitors? That’s the foundation to then go ahead and develop the marketing plan and the tactics. Once you’ve got that, you can think: is the logo reflective of that? is the strapline positioning it well in the market, or do we need to change that or create a new one? 

Then from there you go into your marketing planning, thinking about: who are we trying to target? who are we trying to reach? how are we trying to reach them? what do those targets read? what are their influences? how are we going to use those to get that message out there? and what is that message? 

So we’re doing everything from the strategy to the logo design, website building, to a lot of content writing. This is why we have a lot of scientists on our workforce because we need to create messages that are going to appeal to our clients’ end-target customers, who are themselves scientists. 

We do a bunch of other tactical things as well, like PR social media plans and lots of more traditional marketing as well (brochures, exhibition stands, etc.). 

What type of roles do you employ? 

Content writers would be a class of roles; strategists and planners and customer relationship managers (also known as account managers) – these are all roles where people with a scientific background would be at a big advantage. You don’t need to be an expert in marketing to become an account manager, as I discovered. 

Those are some of the main ones, then there are creative roles such as social media design, the people who design things that are used in social media, would be more likely to come from a design and marketing background, but then the scientists are really important for writing all of the social media posts, because that social media content is being written for scientists to read. 

Is there any specific language that you use in your sector? 

One of the issues we have is that certain marketing job roles, like ‘account manager’ – firstly, I wouldn’t expect a postdoc to know what that is; and secondly, even if they do want to go into the marketing/PR industry, they’re not going to know to use that as a keyword. If they see a job with that role, they’re probably going to think “that’s not me”. And so that is a side issue with advertising for recruitment from academia into our industry. 

I think ‘account manager’ is a key one, because so many jobs are going to have that as a job role wherever they’re looking if it’s in the advertising/marketing/PR industry. I can imagine a scientist would be completely turned off by that or would just disregard it because it doesn’t mean anything. 

It’s really about managing the client relationship. The account manager is a hybrid between project management and stakeholder management. They’re the interface between all the people in the agency who are delivering things (whether that’s doing designs, writing the content, etc.) and the client themselves. 

The account manager understands what the client needs, what the budgets are, and what the client is trying to achieve. So they write the briefs, they then assemble the resources internally, make sure what we actually create is right for the brief and then deliver that back to the client. 

Could you describe your workplace culture? 

It’s very collaborative and we try really hard to emphasise the creativity. A lot of scientists, non-scientists and people in general don’t think of science as creative, but it really is. That’s what we’re all about: trying to get across to other audiences the creativity behind our clients’ technologies and what they’re doing and so on. 

So within our culture, a lot of the team are quite young and we try to give them the opportunities and the exposure really early on, so that they can develop as quickly as they want to and get into really senior roles. People who are very driven and motivated, and want fast rewards tend to do quite well with us. It’s a very open culture, with open plan offices. Quite sharing and team-based. 

What are the key challenges for your organisation? 

I suppose a common challenge for an agency is unexpected peaks in demand, so managing the workload, or demands in the workload. We have a network of trusted freelancers that we will use if we need to manage those extra peaks and troughs. 

It can sometimes take a while for a new contract to get signed off and even though you know it’s coming, it’s hard to actually employ people until the thing’s been signed. So quite often we then need to staff up very quickly and that can be a challenge to bring in the right people. With it being very collaborative and team-based operation, it means that it’s very important that the personalities that we bring in are a good fit for the team – it’s not just about skills at all. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job?  

Agency life is notoriously changeable – it’s a cliché, but there’s a reason why it’s a cliché! Typically when someone starts up a business they have a lot of hats, and I still wear a few but not so many as I used to. 

I do quite a lot of accounts-related and financial stuff, so I could be submitting the quarterly VAT returns, working with our accountants to make sure all of that’s in place. I’m going to have daily meetings with team members to talk about client projects they’re working on. I’m not really on the project management side of things, but just overseeing on certain projects and inputting advice and help where needed. 

Then another hat is an HR hat – we don’t yet have our own HR function, so we use software and government guidance to make sure we’re compliant. Obviously, there’s an element of HR activity, like recruitment, appraisals and so on. 

Peter and I would touch base once a week. Because we have people based all over, we use things like Slack so that we’re all constantly in touch. Client meetings and team meetings might happen across the two offices so pre-lockdown we were already using a lot of this software like Zoom which is now what everyone’s using. For us, then, remote working was a seamless transition. 

Notch set up a second office in Sweden a few years ago and since then my hats have doubled as we’ve had to set up suppliers here, set up a new set of accounts, understand the accounts systems and understand the new set of legal and financial standards we need to meet within the Swedish context. 

My job role has changed a lot over the years. I used to be completely engrossed in the day-to-day of the client projects and managing those. These days it’s much more an oversight kind of role. 

What are your favourite parts of the job? 

Seeing the company grow and improving the company, because as you grow, you have to alter your processes and systems and things like that. Seeing new clients come in and new staff come in – the growth and development there as well is fun. 

It’s still a constant learning basis for me every single day and I think that’s something that’s really important. People might think “if I leave academia I’m just going to be in a really boring, dead-end job” and that’s so not the case. 

Which skills are vital to success in your organisation?

I think soft skills are probably the more important one, because hard skills we’ve already talked about the kind of roles we have. I think the soft skills side is the one that’s the more interesting challenge. Finding those people who are very proactive, who have high standards and that attention to detail, that accountability, that reliability as well. 

We need people who are really in touch with social media and the constant changing nature of social media. As we have a young team, though, that digital literacy tends to be a given. However, we will continue to need people with those capabilities. 

What type of skills, values and motivations do you look for in an employee?

Personality is a big part of it, to be enthusiastic about what it is we’re doing, and to be really interested in all our different clients’ different projects. Another thing which really struck when I moved beyond academia but stayed within a science-related career was that, all of a sudden, your focus switches from just focusing on maybe one molecule to all of these different aspects of loads of sciences, not even necessarily just related to biology. So that was a huge change. 

I found that in my first couple of weeks at the PR agency, I was having to learn very quickly about things relating to lithium batteries and chemistry, which wasn’t really my strong point. Then there was a German dairy technology client, so then I was learning about milking cows. It was all kinds of things! I thought “wow – this is amazing! I’ve never learned so much.” There was so much variety, in different areas of things that somehow related to science. 

So we look for people who are, yes, very interested in science, but hungry to know more. It’s important that they’ve got some good scientific understanding in their specialist subject area (especially if we’re employing a postdoc), but at the same time that they’re not going to hide behind that: that they’re more than happy to roll up their sleeves and find out about space, or whatever the next project might be.

What skills and/or experience have postdocs brought to your company?

They come with a great many more skills and are fast learners. Usually, they have a lot of initiative and have the ability to just run with things. Postdocs need less hand-holding than a more junior person entering the market might do. 

Could you describe your recruitment process?

We advertise jobs on social media, in trade magazines and on Nature jobs – those kinds of portals. Twitter adverts and LinkedIn are really effective, but only if people are looking at LinkedIn. CV and covering letter is the usual initial requirement. 

We usually have screening interviews, which is pretty common in any industry. This is just a chat with them, where we’re going to see if there’s any alignment in terms of what they’re looking for compared with what we’re looking for. Making sure that they understand what it is we do – unless you’re already in the industry, it’s often new to people. And that’s really important because we don’t want to waste their time, or ours. 

So after the screening interview, they would have a more formal interview where they would meet some of the people on the team that they would be joining. They’d give a short presentation or do some kind of skill test. 

We used to have a rule that you’re not allowed to use PowerPoint or slides to make them do something a little bit creative, which is always good fun and a good way to get to know them. The skill test would be related to the role and designed by us. 

So for instance, for an account manager we might give them a prioritisation juggling task: scenario – you’ve got to do this, this and this; you come into work and this has happened; and now this has happened – what are you going to do? So that’s quite fun. 

Then there may or may not be a final interview, where they’d meet our most senior team members before a final decision was made. It’s often a fairly quick process, because as I mentioned if we need to hire, we usually need to hire quickly.

What makes a prospective employee stand out to you? 

After these initial screening interviews, the typical line you hear is “I just spoke to so and so, they’re a total Notcher – let’s bring them in!”, which just means that they’ve got the attitude, they’ve got the personality, they’ve got the hunger, the interest. And it doesn’t matter if they know nothing about marketing, but just that keenness and that proactive mindset is really important. 

It’s also great if people just contact us out of the blue – it doesn’t have to be in response to an advert – because again it just shows that real interest and proactivity. I love it when you get that email or call from someone saying “I scanned your website and I’m looking for a career in this – can I come and have a chat with you?” 

What common pitfalls do you see in the recruitment process? 

I think there’s two key ones. One is people not understanding what we do, not necessarily the company but our niche within the industry. This happens more now that science communication is a recognised thing in its own right, which wasn’t true when I started out. 

So candidates might think “oh! Science communication!” and they think that we either do public engagement, which we don’t, or they might have come across medical and healthcare communications, and again that’s a different field. 

Another thing is the postdocs, the applicants themselves, don’t understand the depth of the transferable skills they’ve got and so don’t apply for these kinds of jobs, or they don’t sell themselves well. 

What is the best way for a prospective employee to showcase their skills? 

If we’re looking for writers, then portfolios, evidence of work they’ve done. Even if it’s unpublished, or it’s ad hoc blogging, we want them to show proactivity, their interest in the field. 

Having good social media accounts of their own that we can look at is also a good way, but if it’s just personal social media that might not be so effective. Some kind of portfolio is always great, whether it’s digital or however they wish to present it. 

Having a personalised cover letter is an absolute must. Showing that you’re genuinely interested and that you care is going to make a big difference. Quite often now we’ll see really creative-looking CVs, and when they have a nice, colourful layout, or someone’s made a real effort to condense the information into a page, it’s really nice: they become suddenly a tangible document where that person’s personality is coming across. You’re more likely to pique people’s interest that way, than with a 6-page Word document on a default template. 

Make sure you do a suitable CV: an academic CV won’t wash in a lot of industries. 

You need to tailor your CV in the same way that you’d tailor your cover letter. In our job advert, we’ll say these are the kinds of skills you need and I would expect them to send the CV back demonstrating that they’ve got those skills. If it’s attention to detail, don’t just say ‘attentive to detail’ – I want ‘Attention to detail:’ and then 3 or 4 examples of why they believe they’ve got that skill. 

Do former postdocs get hired in your company?  

They do. I’d say we’ve hired more people straight out of a PhD, than a postdoc, and we’ve never hired someone who’d done more than one postdoc. That’s not because we’d be against that, but I think they wouldn’t be interested in us. That’s an assumption, though – it hasn’t happened yet! 

We’ve had 3 or 4 former postdocs, and then a bunch of PhD graduates.

How can postdocs find out more about your organisation or sector? 

There are marketing magazines like The Drum or Marketing Week (which are UK-based), though these are marketing agencies in general, rather than science-focused. Then every industry has its trade magazines, so marketing has its marketing magazines, and then the sectors that we work in on behalf of our clients where we publish their materials all have their trade magazines – so those show the results of the work we’ve done with clients: the adverts we create, the stories we publish. 

There’s a trade magazine called Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) which is an American magazine. They’ve really gone into the whole science branding and marketing area and they have a lot of resources online. The magazine is owned by the American Chemical Society (ACS), so that’s probably a good starting point. 

Twitter is also really useful, though beware going down a #scicomms rabbit-hole! 

Any advice to postdocs considering a career in your sector? 

Understand why it is you want to join the sector – what you want to get out of it. That way, you should be able to find the company that can give you what you’re looking for. 

Refine image Refine Cross
Filter by: Unsure what to search for? Click here
130 minutes
Flash badge View notice(s)