I recently received a call from an agency client I’ve worked with in the past. The agency is small and had recently landed a contract research organization (CRO) as a client. The CRO client had an idea for a series of blogs on topics related to research in a handful of disease areas, and had asked the agency to execute this idea. Lacking any staff members who had the time and expertise to perform this task, my agency client thought of me.

I checked out the CRO’s website, and found that the disease areas they were active in were all areas in which I have experience. Moreover, I have experience writing blog content for contract research and manufacturing organizations. I told my agency client I was definitely interested in the project. But I had a question.

“I find these types of projects work best when I get direct input from the client,” I explained, leading up to my question. “Ideally, that input consists of a half-hour phone call with the in-house expert, to get his or her point of view on what the blog should be about. If that’s not possible, I can usually write a blog entry based on an article or report that the client has provided.

“My question is, will I have access to that kind of client input, or will I be expected to choose and research the topics on my own, and then develop the content based on my own research?”

My agency client replied that this would be the latter type of project. I told him I could definitely work in that capacity, but my fee would be higher than for the former type of project, as a lot more work would be involved. “How much higher?” asked my agency client. I quoted him a price, and he said he’d get back to me.

A few days later, after not hearing back from my agency client, I sent him a quick email. He responded that the CRO client’s budget would not accommodate my quoted fee.

It doesn’t seem far-fetched for a CRO to outsource a project of this type. After all, CROs owe their very existence to the outsourcing model. But by not providing meaningful, actionable input, the CRO appears inclined to outsource a critical function: thinking.

There may be logical, practical reasons for outsourcing thinking; the client organization probably doesn’t have the time or the “bandwidth” to do it themselves. But if they don’t want to pay a fair price (in my opinion) for this outsourced function, who will do their thinking for them? And if they find someone else who will do it more cheaply, will they be pleased with the results? As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

More recently, I was on the phone with another agency client, discussing a press release I was to write for a small biotech company. The release was to announce a milestone in the clinical development program for one of the biotech’s investigational products. Simple enough, I thought; we had the study protocol, an investigator brochure, and other background materials to inform the content of the release. But had the biotech provided any input concerning key messages? No, I was told; the agency hadn’t even asked for such input. “We figured we should give them a draft they can react to,” my agency client explained.

The “draft first, ask questions later” impulse is understandable. Clients are extremely busy, and may not have the time (much less the foresight) to consider the intent and impact of written communications until they land on their desks. This appears to be especially true of small biotechs, where the contact may not even be a communications specialist, but someone whose primary job function is marketing, business development, or some other discipline. It may not even occur to the biotech client to provide the agency (and, by extension, the medical writer) with meaningful input at the beginning of the process.

While we can often make an educated guess as to what clients want, and sometimes guess rightly, the tendency to outsource thinking is one that troubles me. Rather than devoting the time and energy to develop a true partnership with the service provider (for lack of a better term), clients that outsource their thinking seem to regard their agencies and freelance writers as mere vendors. While the outsourced thinking model may make my services more valuable, it usually makes my job harder, and, more to the point, reduces the chances of generating impactful results. Moreover, this trend hardly inspires confidence in the client; it makes me wonder, where else are they cutting corners?

More importantly, does the tendency to outsource thinking reflect a fundamental lack of vision on the client’s part? If so, the process of content development may devolve into a cart-before-the-horse proposition. I say we should push back on this type of situation wherever possible. As content developers, we need to help clients understand that communications campaigns are doomed to fail in the absence of a coherent, clearly articulated vision. We can help clients with the visioning process, but they have to participate in the process. If they don’t have time (or budget) for that, then what’s the point?