The big picture: Can pharma creativity compete at Cannes? Can it afford not to?

Lions Health
At Cannes Lions Health, experiences and do-gooding won the day, but few pharma companies reached the winner's circle.

Cannes means creativity in the advertising world, but pharma is still sitting on the sidelines. That’s the upshot from this year's Cannes Lions Health, where only three out of 25 pharma awards went to actual pharma companies.

What happened? Pick a theory. Too many pharma companies won’t allow agencies to enter work on their behalf, said some agency executives. Others said healthcare is moving beyond the pill, but pharma continues to pour most of its money into traditional DTC advertising—and that doesn’t make the creative cut.

Still other thoughts: Too few pharma companies show up at the ad festival and therefore don’t understand it, or learn from it. The intense focus on drug pricing in the U.S. leaves little interest in Cannes concerns. Plus, travel costs money, and public perception might not be friendly.

While the truth is probably a little of all of the above and more, the bigger question is, does it even matter? Is creativity at the level of Cannes even necessary in pharma marketing?

Yes, it does matter, and yes, it is necessary, said many agency and marketing executives interviewed at the festival.

That’s because the pharma marketing business is shifting, just like the most creative work in pharma and health. Lions winners are no longer just clever TV, print and public relations campaigns. Cannes pharma winners today—much like the pharma industry itself striving to go beyond the pill—now create experiences that inform, educate, enrich or outfit patients with tools for better living.

“The creativity this year has been extraordinary, but it’s not advertising,” said Graham Mills, global chief creative officer, Publicis Health, and one of the pharma awards jurors. “One of the things that’s becoming clear and what I see happening at agencies is that, while 80% of our business is advertising, 20% is now the innovation thing. It's about partnerships between brands, or with tech companies, to create new solutions—not pills, but rather creating experiences.

"Marketing as service is something we’ve always talked about, but I think it’s becoming much more of a reality than an aspiration.”

That’s true of many of the top winners in pharma this year, including the four Gold Lion-awarded “Immunity Charm” bracelet for the Afghanistan Ministry of Health, which tracks a child's vaccinations in a culturally relevant way in the nomadic country, created by McCann Health, New Delhi. Another gold high-scorer was a virtual reality program that makes children’s vaccinations fun and easy, designed by Ogilvy in Brazil for Hermes Pardini labs.

Kym White, Edelman global sector chair for Health, and a pharma jury member, said, echoed several others on the panel, either one of those campaigns could just as easily been done by a pharma vaccine maker.

“There is creativity that is being expressed in the healthcare environment that pharma needs to take a lesson from. Pharma can be inspired in such a way that the next sentence shouldn’t be ‘Yeah, but we can’t do that because we’re too regulated’ because pharma in fact could have done either one of those campaigns,” she said.

Dave Sonderman, chief creative officer at inVentiv's GSW, said pharma is reluctant to "tackle the honest drama" of conflict as part of a product narrative. That's a problem in pushing real creativity in branded work forward, he said. However, there's hope: He pointed to another winning campaign that could have been pharma.

"The work 'Capture' from McCann Worldgroup for a Thai nutraceutical celebrates one of the most imaginative science (MOA/mechanism of action) stories I've ever seen, complete with branded product benefit and logo. So, not a pharma product, but definitely a common pharma story approach, made Lions-worthy with ambitious creative storytelling and top-notch casting," he said.

"Capture" won a silver Health & Wellness Lion with its humorous video for Verena nutrition supplements. The video played on Thai police officers' reputation for being overly vigilant as one pulls over a motorcyclist in search of contraband, and tied the MOA of the supplement to that process.

In all, 590 entries were submitted for pharma Lions Health awards, but just 25 were awarded prizes. Last year, a similar number, 582, were submitted, but the jury handed out more than double the number of awards (52). And the three pharma companies that did win this year—Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck & Co. and Roche—each only received third-place Bronze Lions.

R. John Fidelino, executive director of creative at Interbrand Health and a pharma juror this year, said, “It dawned on me as we were going through the work, pharma creatives are always having to defend the work that we do. It’s not slick, it’s not cutting edge and whatever else critics say … But I still don’t think that as a category that we have to apologize for the work that is out there.”

No apologies needed, for example, for the much-talked about silver pharma public relations Lions winner Northwell Health’s “The Fin.” It's a prime example of an agency pushing to create an experience instead of an ad. Northwell ad agency JWT, New York, was initially asked by the New York hospital system to create a print ad showcasing its innovative veteran’s care programs.

Instead, said executive creative director Ben James, the agency proposed creating a 3-D printed pool-friendly prosthetic leg for an amputee vet so he could get in and out of the water to play with his young sons. The end result? A silver award for the agency, but more importantly, a collaboration of companies that is now working to widely reproduce the amphibious leg for other amputees.

James said, “The concept of innovating beyond the pill as a theme is very exciting as a creative because we get to lean into that. A lot of creatives are traditionally afraid of this space because it’s regulated. But with the spirit and culture of what innovation is doing to regulation, that’s a box I want to get in and break out from the inside.”

Pharma may need the James-type creatives at ad agencies to help lead the way. The pharma and healthcare ad agency people, who greatly outnumbered pharma executives at the festival, have a responsibility, many agreed, to take Cannes’ creative lessons back to clients to promote and inspire new ways of marketing in pharma.

Belle Frank, chief strategy officer of Young & Rubicam’s global health practice, said agencies need to go beyond showing pharma and healthcare clients the risks and rewards of novel, creative marketing. They need to illustrate the bigger risk of not being creative.

“Agencies have a responsibility to help clients see beyond what’s already proven. Because by definition it’s proven and that’s not going to be creative. Sometimes you have to hold people’s hands along the way,” she said.

Indeed, there is a danger for pharma in not advancing creatively. As payers' focus moves toward outcomes and consumers continue to take charge of their own health, pharma will increasingly find itself at a crossroads. Companies will either need to step up and become real solutions partners alongside patients and physicians, or resign themselves to simply developing and manufacturing pills and jabs.

The good news about creativity in pharma is that at least some pharma companies seem to be coming around and recognizing its importance. Not only in the creative ability to differentiate products and services, but also the potential to spitshine the industry's reputation as a whole.

“For so long, the market has been about selling,” said Mike Hudnall, CEO of WPP Health & Wellness. “But what we’ve seen over the past five years is that it’s shifting very much to healthcare and helping patients versus selling molecules. … This is an industry that does an extraordinary amount of good, but for a long time has not proactively managed reputation and so that reputation has been shaped by the bad behavior of a few.”

Amar Urhekar, president of McCann Health Americas, said his concern is that, in the pharma industry's traditionally conservative way of doing business, some may miss out on the disruption that’s now taking place in the industry. It's a disruption in which creativity can play a key role in helping companies jump ahead. (McCann Health won the Cannes Lions Health global network of the year for the second year in a row.)

“Pharma guys are really good at being the second to be the first,” he said. “My biggest concern is if the clients don’t see the level of urgency and how close they are to being disrupted, they will lose out.”

This year's Cannes Lions Health coverage is brought to you by Klick Health. All editorial content is written and produced independently of our sponsor.