From Lab to Life Science Marketing: Q&A with Matt Zanon, Senior Web Developer

Not all scientists stay in science: a 2013 NIH study found that 18% of biomedical PhDs work in sciences doing something other than research and 13% have left the sciences altogether. Science degrees and experience take years to come by; how can scientists transition careers without throwing away the knowledge they already have?

Before coming to Chempetitive Group, Matt Zanon was a chemistry major at Knox College. Unenthused by the prospect of a life in the lab, Matt turned to programming and marketing, eventually leveraging his chemistry experience as a life science marketer. I sat down with Matt to learn more about how his chemist background helps him as a senior web developer.

Not many marketers come from a research setting. Can you tell us about your transition from a lab to Chempetitive Group, an integrated life science marketing agency?

So there’s about a decade in there between the two, but I suppose things were always in motion. I really enjoyed chemistry and was really passionate about it as a student, but I found that I clicked with it on a chalkboard in a way that I did not click with it in a laboratory. Around the same time as that I got sucked into an internship that was not chemistry, but a combination of programing and managerial stuff. It was actually for the phone company back in the day, like 12 years ago. So it was a long time ago. That started to set my sights outside of chemistry.

I loved chemistry, but I went down on this other path in my career. Those two ends didn’t really tie themselves together until I came to Chempetitive Group, and it was just really good fortune. Before that I went off into higher education and did all sorts of different software development and IT over there for about a decade. I finally cast my hat into the ring and wanted to get out of that, so I got hired by a different marketing agency about 4 years ago and enjoyed that greatly. I loved working with a bunch of different clients instead of one institution all day, and I loved the here-and-nowness of the subject matter.

Then about a year after that Chempetitive Group came knocking on my door and asked if I would be interested in going someplace that might suit me even more closely. So I went from being a web developer in Arkansas and came here about 3 ½ years ago.

What is your role at CG and how has your science background helped you in that role?

The short answer is that we make websites for clients. But a website is something different from any other medium – it is something that’s living and breathing that nobody expects to stay the same for very long. When you build a website, it’s not like building a brochure or an essay or white paper. It isn’t just making something and stamping out more of them: you’re tending a garden. Planning for that takes a lot of work.

So yes, of course I code things, but the real challenge is figuring out what the clients want to say, what the shape of that message is, and how you give them a way to edit and evolve that message that’s easy on them.

Chemistry comes up in both an abstract way and a concrete one. The concrete way is the simple one. We’ve had all sorts of little things come up with clients. It’s nice that when they cross my desk we don’t have to go back to the client two or three times to be proofread or understood. More abstractly, once you’ve trained your brain to move symbols around to accomplish one thing I think it’s easier to learn how to train it to move symbols around to train another thing. We do a lot to customize the little aspects of our clients’ websites. Even a website that seems fairly simple will have a lot of custom code, and that’s kind of the same muscles in your brain as learning structural diagrams.

What advice would you give others in the life sciences looking for new opportunities?

I didn’t have a single real jump, but I realize that other people have questions about how to make that transition. I don’t have a real story to give you there, other than to keep your eyes peeled and develop whatever talents you find yourself having a passion for. Things might surprise you.

How did you ultimately come to Chempetitive Group, a life science marketing agency?

I had already made the decision to move over into marketing, because those are places where the skills of developing a website and doing it well are being used. So in the fall of 2012 the CG Director of Strategy dropped me an email out of nowhere saying “Hey we’re really interested in you, can we get on the phone together?” I liked everyone I met here; it’s a place that’s good at acting on things quickly instead of just talking through things. That made a good first impression.

In what ways is agency life different from the lab?

Agency life is a lot more practical. In a laboratory you have to get an exact number – it’s all about getting a high purity, and knowing exactly what you created, and what yield. Things like that. In the real world of marketing we like to use numbers and we use them whenever we can, but we don’t always have the time or resources to achieve the same degree of rigor as a laboratory. We find a solution that’s good enough to get the result we’re looking for and go with it. We wouldn’t be that way if it weren’t the thing that puts the biggest smile on the clients’ faces and gets them the results they want. But it is a culture difference from the laboratory.

What’s most exciting about working for a life science marketing agency?

You get to be involved in the good moments the clients are having. If they’re seeking venture capital and get a bunch of funding, you see all the work you put in pay off. Obviously the scientists and everybody in the lab is the most crucial element, but when we have clients do an IPO, get funded, get FDA approval, or whatever their definition of success is, it feels good to see our hard work pay off.

Sometimes we have clients come in with ideas that are so fresh or hot or readily copied that we have to move very quickly to help them outmaneuver someone in the marketplace. Playing Speed Racer like that is pretty fun. Anything involving needing to act quickly and think sharply, and make things happen well without a whole lot of time is fun. It’s fun to meet those challenges.

What’s the most exciting development to you in the life sciences right now?

I think I’m supposed to say CRISPR.

Catch up on the latest digital marketing intel from Matt.