After a Cannes coup, Area 23 creative chief spills his secrets—or most of them

Cannes Lions Health pavilion - Palais ll
Inside the Cannes Palais des Festivals shown here, FCB Health network ad agency Area 23 was busy sweeping up awards in pharma categories and beyond. (Beth Snyder Bulik)

Cannes Lions Health only runs the first two days of the broader festival, but ad agency Area 23 managed to stretch its winning ways into the full five days of Cannes. The agency snagged so many awards, including two silvers in pharma, it helped drive parent FCB Health to a healthcare network of the year win.

Area 23 picked up nine awards in all, with its trophies beyond pharma in mobile, direct, public relations, print and publishing and the Glass Lion for Change.

Plus, its Glass win, which awards work that addresses “ingrained gender inequality, imbalance or injustice,” was its second in a row. This year, it went to heartrending campaign “The Rape Tax” on behalf of the National Organization for Victims Assistance, which centered on the medical bills of a real rape victim.

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Not only did Area 23 scoop up its own accolades this year at Cannes, it also helped drive a big win for parent FCB Health as healthcare network of the year. That assist came one year after Area 23 won its own healthcare agency of the year nod.

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

So, who better to address creativity in the industry than the person who leads Area 23’s creative efforts? We asked Tim Hawkey, managing director and executive creative director at Area 23 for more than seven years, for his take on Cannes, creativity and the clues to winning campaigns.

FiercePharma: Why has Area 23 been so successful at Cannes? What’s the secret?

Tim Hawkey: I think there are a lot of not-so-secret factors at play here.

First, FCB Global and FCB Health Network are committed to Cannes. We see it as the proving ground for the best creativity in the world. While other companies are pulling out of Cannes for various reasons, our leadership has only strengthened its commitment.

Second, without our clients, there’s no Cannes. And in the past year, our clients have really shown a willingness to experiment, and do things that haven’t been done before. Pharma is still a very conservative industry, in some ways unnecessarily. But every year, I feel like the door to creativity opens wider and wider. And every time a pharma marketer makes a brave decision, it makes everyone around them a little bit braver too.

Third, our agency teams, across every department, are all aligned toward one goal—to create the best damn advertising in the world. We’re not there yet, but you know what they say: If you shoot for the stars, you’ll get the moon. Cannes is not a goal in itself, but it’s a great extra result of us trying to put creativity in the forefront for all of our clients.

There’s a fourth thing, but it’s a secret.

RELATED: Cannes Lions Health: Merck, Novartis, Pfizer and 15 more pharmas nab shortlist honors

FP: What do you think makes great pharma or healthcare creative?

TH: Your question belies an assumption that healthcare has its own criteria or benchmark for creativity. And while that may be true right now (hey, that’s really good … for pharma), that has to end if we hope to continue to elevate the work for pharma brands. Creativity is creativity, and when we use pharma or healthcare as a modifier for our creative work, then we’re lowering the bar to meet us where we are. Instead, let’s leave the bar where it is and stretch ourselves to meet it.

At the agency, we use three simple criteria to evaluate the work:

The first is, is it completely original? That means has it ever been done before—and we don’t just mean has it ever been done in pharma.

The second is, is it thought-provoking? You can create something that is totally crazy, never been seen, can’t possibly forget it, but if it doesn’t make you think, if it doesn’t stir you on some deeper level, then it probably isn’t strong enough to elicit the kind of behavior change that we seek with our brands.

And third, is it stunningly crafted? As my Creative Director Bernardo Romero likes to say, “You can’t regulate craft.” Today’s consumer expects better and deserves better than anything you can find on a stock site or anything that an agency can produce in-house. There are so many amazingly talented artists in the world, and the stories we can tell in healthcare are so rich that when you put those two things together, it’s a winning combination.

RELATED: No pharma Grand Prix—again—at Cannes Lions Health, but record number of awards for drugmakers

FP: What tips or advice do you have for other agencies?

TH: Just work on the work, then work some more, then put a little work into it, then work-work-work, then work it, baby, then work on it ’til it’s perfect, then throw it out because it sucks, and then start over and work on it a whole lot more.

Point being, pushing the creative that last 1% takes twice as much work. It can mean starting over from scratch, it can mean having tough talks with your client, and it definitely means losing some sleep. It can be very tempting to be happy with 99% and end there. I think there’s a sports metaphor in here about the 1-yard line, or something. That’s tennis, right?