'The rise of the customer is really important': As medical devices trump Rx drugs at Cannes Lions, its Jury President notes a shift

Not since the pre-COVID days in 2019 has a pure-play pharmaceutical company managed to win the top prize at the prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, as medical technology and device firms have seemingly taken over.

The Grand Prix, the top prize of the Pharma Lions category, went to Siemens Healthineers this year for its audiobooks that integrate the often-frightening sounds coming from MRI machines into fun and fantastical elements so that children undergoing the exam would be less scared.

Last year the top prize went to a digital product from a little-known Brazilian company called Eurofarma, supported by the Brazil Parkinson Association and run by Argentina’s Dentsu Creative agency.

Here, Eurofarma created an app that allows people with Parkinson’s disease to perform facial exercises that slow the progression of muscle atrophy with a social media twist.

Back in 2022, the Grand Prix went to a campaign from VMLY&R New York, called "I Will Always Be Me," which focused on motor neurone disease (MND)—specifically on the disease’s cruel way of stealing patients’ voices.

Tech giants Dell and Intel and luxury car maker Rolls-Royce teamed up to engineer a “voice bank” that can create a digital copy of a patient’s voice so they can still sound like themselves even after losing their ability to speak normally.

And in 2021, while several pharmas won gold and silver medals (which they failed to do this year), it was the Woojer audio wearable company, along with its health agency Area 23, that won the top Pharma prize for “Sick Beats,” its music experience and treatment vest for people with cystic fibrosis.

The event was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we need to look back to 2019 when the top prize in the Pharma Lions category was awarded to an actual pharmaceutical company. This was GlaxoSmithKline which won the Grand Prix for its work in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease awareness and the underdiagnosis of the disease in China.

We’ve now reached five years with no pharma company winning the Grand Prix and fewer top medals going out to the industry as the tech world appears to be muscling in on pharma’s creativity.

Is there something inherently more creative in the tech/medical device industry, or does it allow for greater creativity given its type of products, as opposed to prescription medicines?

Speaking at the “Inside the Jury Room: Pharma” session at the event in Southern France, Jury President for the Pharma Lions Collette Douaihy, also global chief creative officer, health at Dentsu, did not directly talk about why pharma was not winning, but did discuss the shift in the jury’s thinking over the past few years.

“We often talk about the rise of the customer/patient experience,” Douaihy said during the session. “That’s what we [focus on]. We’ve seen in the last three years for sure, maybe as far back as five years, we’re giving people an experience. When I think about experiences, I see more work winning that arena than anywhere else.

“Whether it has technology or innovation, or whether it can be something very simple, the rise of the customer experience [when it comes to winning] is really important.”

Douaihy also spoke about the importance of mental health considerations in these campaigns. “Mental health is a huge problem globally,” she said, “[but] we didn’t see a lot of cases of this in the Pharma work. I thought it would have been more of a trend. I know it was around six years ago […] and it’s still a huge problem.”

She said that, as an industry, there is a pattern of “ups and downs” about what is “in” for a particular year. Douaihy added that while she was expecting to judge more mental health-based campaigns this year, what came out instead was the need for greater inclusivity as a major theme, because “we know we need to do that as a market,” she explained.

Biogen and Organon were the only two pharmas this year to win medals in the Pharma Lions category and both were bronze, with no silvers or golds going to a typical pharma firm.

Biogen won bronze for “Not a Lonely Journey,” a spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) campaign that focused on travel guides co-written by SMA patients, travel writers and scientists to show healthcare providers the greater extent SMA patients can travel and “live life to the fullest.” 

Douaihy did mention Biogen's "remarkable" campaign at the end of the session, saying it helped show how people with disabilities can "still navigate the world," and highlighted it as one of the campaigns focused on "inclusivity plus experience," which she said was "amazing" for an area like rare disease, in which SMA sits.  

Organon, meanwhile, also nabbed bronze for its “Mis(s)diagnosed” project that sought to tackle the medical bias against women with cardiovascular disease.