Can Cannes push the pharma ad envelope? Record number of Lions wins hint at yes

Cannes Lion Health pharma festival winners celebrated, but so did finalists and health attendees thanks to good showing. (Beth Snyder Bulik)

If the first few years of the Cannes Lions Health served to inspire pharma advertising creativity, this year was the payoff. With double-digit pharma wins for the first time in the festival's history, the industry validated its claim on the Cannes call for life-changing creativity.

The pharma company winners and finalist contenders were a who's who in the industry. The big scorers that picked up Lions were Boehringer Ingelheim, Bayer, Takea, Eli Lilly, Biogen and Novartis in the U.S., while GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca won for international work.

Add in the shortlisted pharma company ads, and the circle grows to include Pfizer, Allergan, Eli Lilly, Merck, Roche and Teva.

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“The rule changes that got more pharma work to be shown, judged and viewed—within specific guidelines that allow it to shine—are ultimately going to make the work stronger, and I think will invite and encourage more clients to attend,” said Mike Hudnall, CEO of WPP Health & Wellness. “It’s such an enormous opportunity to push pharma marketing farther and to be more creative.”

One of the big branded winners was Boehringer Ingelheim which picked up two Lions Health statues—a silver and a bronze, both for its Stiolto Respimat print work. The campaign, with striking images of smokers in everyday situations but covered in cigarette ashes, began earlier this year as a professional print campaign directed at COPD healthcare providers.

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“We’re incredibly proud of the work completed in support of this campaign. From its first inception, we recognized the potential impact of this campaign to help illustrate the realities and challenges of people living with COPD,” said Boehringer Ingelheim's Chris Wahlers, associate director of communications, primary care, via email.

He noted that the ad agency FCB Health team has been working with Boehringer on COPD for six years and now has a deep understanding of the condition, and of patients and healthcare providers in the space.

“Creativity shouldn’t be confined to one industry. We’re pleased that there are opportunities, like Cannes, available to recognize campaigns that have made a difference,” Wahlers added.

Bayer was another pharma that won two Cannes Health Lions: a silver Lion in the pharma category for its Xofigo print work and a bronze in the health & wellness category for its "The Leap of Faith" campaign, which introduced its Leaps by Bayer initiative to address challenges in healthcare and agriculture.

Dr. Axel Bouchon, head of Leaps by Bayer, talked about the campaign via email, and said, “Leaps by Bayer is trying to tackle fundamental breakthroughs in life science. We felt we should try the same for our Leaps communication campaign.”

Marketing and advertising agency Klick Health also won two Cannes Lions for its pharma work. The agency snagaged a bronze Lion for its awareness campaign “The Wrestler” for Novartis, and it also shared a silver Lion with McCann New York for Takeda's Trintellix social media campaign “Lighter Blue.”

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The social media win was particularly notable for pharma, which is often accused of being a laggard in the medium.

Brad Einarsen, senior director of social media at Klick Health said via email, “It shows that creativity is absolutely essential for a strong social presence and the use of a loveable character, like Blue, can drive significant audience participation even for a delicate subject like depression. Second, it shows that focusing on the core brand goals is not antithetical to deep audience participation.” He added that the win also provides evidence Facebook can work for pharma, even with that social media platform's restrictions.

Yet even as the winners expressed satisfaction with their awards, the overarching sentiments from many health attendees was proud, inspired and optimistic.

“The ambition of agencies and clients has never been higher, and I believe this is in no small part fueled by pharma's inclusion at Cannes. Looking forward, this bodes incredibly well for the industry and the people we ultimately serve as there is no higher calling in advertising than that of life changing creativity," said Elliot Langerman, chief creative officer at Klick Health New York, via email.