Cannes Lions Health 2021 recap: The 17 pharma winners that virtually wowed judges

Flags flying outside Cannes Lions 2019
While the flags didn't fly this year at Cannes Lions Health, 2021's pharma award winners proved creativity in the category continues.(Beth Snyder Bulik)

The Cannes Lions Health advertising creativity festival, usually an annual event in the south of France, was never so unsunny or Rosé-bereft as in 2021. Like many conferences, the pharma and health marketing creativity festival went virtual, putting galas and celebrations on hold until next year.

What didn't get put on hold during the pandemic was creativity. And it was more than artful animations and inventive visual effects: Many pharma winners last week offered health solutions.

Life-changing products like a mucus-dissolving music experience vest for cystic fibrosis patients and technological wonders—like new Mozart symphonies created using AI and an inexpensive pupil-tracking communication tool for ALS patients—garnered judges’ admiration and took home top awards.

It’s not a brand-new path for Lions Health winners—previous big winners included a COPD diagnostic tool and a vaccine tracking bracelet for children—but innovative solutions were a stronger and more ubiquitous thread that ran through not only the winners' list but the shortlisted pharma companies' efforts.

RELATED: Cannes Lions drops pharma shortlists with Pfizer, Roche, Teva and more vying for top creativity awards

“Pharma companies are finally going beyond the ‘push’ approach to marketing and embracing a ‘pull’ approach,” Tim Hawkey, said chief creative officer of Area 23, and one of the pharma judges this year.

“Many winning campaigns aren’t necessarily trying to message on a product, but are delivering brand value to the customer, by solving real-world problems, by entertaining, by creating special experiences, and creating new conversations around topics the customer cares about,” Hawkey added.

Of course, given the restrictions marketers had to overcome, the pandemic did have an effect on the awards. But it came down on the positive side, as those very limits pushed creative re-thinking and non-traditional approaches.

Hawkey’s Area 23 and its Grand Prix winning "Sick Beats" music experience and vest for cystic fibrosis patients, for instance, was an idea in development for years when the agency finally thought it was ready to go in early 2020. When the pandemic struck, though, Area 23 lost its original tech partner along with its then-planned clinical trials. The cystic fibrosis patients it needed couldn’t be exposed to COVID-19 infections at test centers.

But the team rallied. They found a new wearable company partner, Woojer. It had already created a consumer music vest and quickly jumped on board to redevelop it specifically for cystic fibrosis patients.

Then, armed with the vests and modern pop playlists compiled of 40 Hz frequency music—a deep bass tone that's been shown to break up mucus—Area 23 turned to Claire’s Place Foundation. Through the cystic fibrosis support group, they found a way to get the vest to children to safely try out at home, with parents standing in as directors to film the kids' reactions and successful use.

“The idea is intuitive, but there’s so much detail that makes it strong—the science of 40 Hz, the actual technology of the vest, and the data we scoured to find all these 40 Hz sounds—behind the scenes. And then there’s just the expression on these kids’ faces that's so captivating,” Hawkey said.

Area 23 is committed to following through on the multicenter clinical trial.  Investigators are now reaching out, and the plan is to finish the trial and eventually submit an FDA application in the next 12 to 18 months, he said.

"Sick Beats" ended up with 11 Cannes Lions across the 2021 festival, including a second Grand Prix win in the radio and audio category.

RELATED: Cannes Lions crowns 2 health and wellness 2021 grand prize winners amid broadening field of entrants

Animation and technology were two other well-represented themes for the 2021 awards, which included entries for two years. The program was shelved completely last June during the height of the pandemic.

Forced to abandon or strictly curtail live, in-person shoots, agencies turned to animation to get their pharma clients’ messages out. Even when they did shoot in-person, the subjects themselves helped out with camera work, as did the patients in Argenx’s docuseries about the rare disease myasthenia gravis. 

“Winning work is centered on brands with purpose. Our work for brands can no longer be just a flash-in-the-pan campaign; it must reflect action and a commitment to change,” Donna Murphy global CEO of Havas Health & You, said after the pharma awards, where Havas won a silver, in a virtual Cannes’ Havas Café report.

With an eye to next year, Hawkey—whose agency also nabbed Healthcare Agency of the Year honors—said, “For the pharma marketer that wants to break through to the customer of 2022, be it a consumer or HCP, you're going to have to think beyond the advertising, because the marketing mix has changed, and I think it’s a change for the better.”

While awaiting that change to show up again at Cannes Lions Health next year, here's a look back at the 17 pharma winners for 2021.

Company: Woojer
Campaign: Sick Beats
Agency: FCB Health Network's Area 23
Awards: Grand Prix pharma
Gold, regulated for product innovation
Bronze, regulated for digital craft, user experience

Wearable company Woojer and FCB Health’s Area 23 took the top pharma prize with their “Sick Beats” custom music experience for people with cystic fibrosis (CF). The Woojer vest, conceptualized by Area 23 and now in clinical development, delivers 40-Hz music to CF patients’ chests, loosening the mucus in a fashion similar to a traditional high-​frequency chest wall oscillation vest—without the physical vibrations and pounding. Woojer and Area 23 even created a “Sick Beats” Spotify playlist with songs the device can tap for 40-Hz beats, including tunes from popular artists like Maroon 5, The Wknd, Ariana Grande and Imagine Dragons.

Company: Teva Pharmaceutical
Campaign: Teva Hairspray
Agency: VCCP Health London
Awards: Gold, non-regulated direct to consumer
Silver, non-regulated for film, cinema, TV and digital film content

In an ode to the extraordinary acts of love by caregivers, Teva’s double award-winning film depicts an elderly man towing his backpack to hair-styling school every day. He smiles back at the stares from the other young female students and day by day improves his brushing, curling and braiding techniques. As the screen changes to an older woman who looks confused, John takes her hairbrush and goes to work. The captions then reads “John never thought he’d become a hairdresser. Until Mary fell ill.” The "Acts of Love" campaign raised awareness by driving viewers to Teva’s Life Effects website and its Carer section for more caregiver stories.

Company: Samsung
Campaign: Tallk
Agency: Cheil Worldwide Madrid
Award: Gold, non-regulated for mobile

In gold-winning work from Spain, Samsung created an eye-tracking mobile app and campaign for people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). While specialized technology was already on the market, at an average cost of about €6,000, it was cost-prohibitive for many patients in Spain. Samsung’s app converts any camera on a Samsung tablet into an eye-tracking device for the tablet cost of about €200. The app-tablet combo tracks patients’ pupils to allow them to communicate with speech, but also connects to Samsung's smart assistant, Bixby, to track the movements for other tasks. The results? Within three months, 50% of ALS patients in Spain downloaded the app.

Company: Insmed
Campaigns: Trapped and Unbreakable
Agency: FCB Health Network's Area 23
Awards: Two silvers, one each in regulated category for film craft, animation/visual effects

Drugmaker Insmed nabbed two film craft silver awards for two different films that shone a light on the often misdiagnosed, rare lung disease nontuberculous mycobacterial (NTM). The “A Thousand Words” campaign, created by Area 23, featured three film animations that told the stories of different patients. The two silver lion winners animated the story of one patient as a stuffed bunny and tracked its long journey to diagnosis in “Unbreakable.” The second, “Trapped,” depicted a woman strapped down with weights and heavy lights as a visual allusion to living with her disease.

Company: Genea
Campaign: Where Babies Come From
Agency: Che Proximity Sydney
Awards: Silver, regulated for integrated campaign
Bronze, regulated for film, cinema, TV and digital film content

Genea fertility clinics in Australia wanted to recognize that not every baby is created the traditional way. In fact, one in 20 children is conceived with in vitro fertilization. So along with agency Che Proximity, Genea came up with a campaign to tell the story about where IVF babies come from. A book for children explaining their special beginnings was free to download, while a provocative film just for grown-ups (set to the song “Let’s Talk About Sex”) nabbed 35.6 million impressions online.

Company: TherapeuticsMD
Brand: Annovera
Campaign: Vagina Appreciation Day
Agency: McCann New York
Award: Silver, digital for social and influencer

In the long list of little-known holidays, Vagina Appreciation Day likely ranked as one of the least known—until now. Thanks to McCann’s campaign for birth control ring Annovera from TherapueticsMD, the April 23 holiday was immortalized in self-healthy digital videos and social media teasers inviting women to celebrate the day with an orgasm. Unapologetic spokesperson and comedian Whitney Cummings helmed the campaign to de-mystify, and de-stigmatize, women’s sexual health.  

Company: Green Valley Pharmaceutical
Campaign: The Number
Agency: McCann Health Shangai
Award: Silver, regulated direct to patient

A heart-wrenching short film depicts a woman’s journey home to China, with the story unfolding as she’s shown flying in a plane and then driving. Her destination? Her father, who was found wandering the streets repeating her phone number over and over. The work is part of Green Valley’s effort to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease in China, where its drug candidate oligomannate (GV-971) notched conditional approval in late 2019 to improve cognitive function in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. The pharma is running an FDA-approved study with the unusual gut biome seaweed derivative to determine whether the drug can produce lasting improvement in that same group of patients.

Company: Roche's Genentech
Campaign: Bloodless Battle
Agency: Real Chemistry's 21GRAMS
Award: Silver, regulated for branded content and entertainment, live experience

Genentech’s Bloodless Battle e-sports gaming competition drew attention to gamers with hemophilia who play on Twitch. The Twitch Live streaming event, hosted by magician and TV show host Justin Willman, featured conversation and game play in the head-to-head competition with a $50,000 prize pool.  

Campaign: IDverse
Agency: Havas Health & You Sao Paolo
Award: Silver, non-regulated healthcare professional engagement for industry craft, art direction

Created to address the millions of people who die from preventable adverse events every year, Havas Health & You in Brasil developed a patient identification system to help healthcare providers easily identify a person’s conditions and allergies. Simple symbols stand for diabetes, Alzheimer’s or food allergies, for instance. In São Paolo, the new protocols were picked up for use on patient charts as well as ID bracelets, health cards and even tattoos.

Company: Pfizer
Brand: Chantix
Campaign: Chantix Camping
Agency: VMLY&R New York
Award: Bronze, regulated direct to patient

Pfizer’s play on the smoking cessation phrase “cold turkey” came to life as "Slow Turkey" in 2019, when it created the meandering spokescharacter and quitting strategy. Pfizer’s animated bird ran away with a bronze award this year in a VMLY&R TV ad in which the hero bird goes camping, makes dinner over an open fire and slow hikes in the forest, eventually tossing its cigarettes into the campfire when ready to quit.

Company: Edwards Lifesciences
Brand: Inspiris Resilia
Campaign: Edward Storks
Agency: VCCP Health London
Award: Bronze, regulated healthcare professional

The Inspiris Resilia aortic valve hardly sounds like the subject of a heartwarming (pun intended) movie, yet that’s exactly what happens in Edwards Lifesciences and VCCP Health London's touching animated “Up”-like film. An older man is at the park with his granddaughter when he has chest pains. He and his wife go to see a cardiologist, who shows them the Resilia tissue valve on his desk. The film then follows the man into surgery, where a bright light and storks arrive to carry him and others back to their families and live life again. The tagline?  “Help your AVR patients feel reborn.”

Company: Pfizer
Campaign: Mozart 80
Agency: F5 Shanghai
Award: Bronze, regulated for use of technology

What if now-curable infections could have been cured sooner? That’s what Pfizer’s unbranded vaccine campaign imagines. The Mozart 80 concert in Shanghai used artificial intelligence to imagine “what if” Mozart hadn’t died from a bacterial infection at age 35. The verdict? Three symphonies that he would have produced by ages 40, 60 and 80. Pfizer initially launched the project during the pandemic as an employee recruitment campaign to highlight the power of not just its COVID-19 shot, but all vaccines.

Company: Pfizer
Campaign: Beautiful Dreamer
Agency: TracyLocke Brasil Sao Paulo
Award: Bronze, regulated for film craft, cinematography

A touching look at the rare disease familial amyloid polyneuropathy (FAP) as seen through a young woman’s eyes nabbed Pfizer a bronze award for cinematography. She dreams of travel and adventures, like diving with sharks. She creates a wall of notes describing those hopes even as the symptoms of FAP—tingling feet and an inability to feel a hot pan in her hands—set in. While the work is unbranded, Pfizer’s Vyndaqel is approved as an oral treatment for FAP patients in Europe.

Company: Argenx
Campaign: A Mystery to Me
Agency: CloserLook Chicago
Award: Bronze, regulated for branded content and entertainment, film, TV and digital

Argenx's ongoing work to raise awareness for the rare disease myasthenia gravis last year included a behind-the-scenes docuseries with three real patients. Called “A Mystery to Me,” the series documents the discovery, diagnosis, struggles and triumphs of real life with the condition. After the premiere, Argenx invited others living with the disease to post their photos, creating a movie poster mosaic with many other stories.

Company: Johnson & Johnson's Janssen EMEA
Campaign: Breaking Depression
Agency: Langland London
Award: Bronze, regulated for industry craft, illustration

Janssen EMEA nabbed a bronze lion by using the Japanese broken-object art of Kintsugi to tell the stories of real patients with major depressive disorder. The art pieces—used in a film, in social media and on a dedicated website—don’t conceal the cracks in broken pottery, but celebrate them with gold lacquer repair lines, using the tagline “We are never beyond repair.” Langland London reported 4.8 million impressions, 350,000 film views and 37,000 support pledges in three months.     

Company: Constant Therapy
Campaign: Fighting for Words
Agency:  FCB Health Network's Area 23
Award: Bronze, regulated for industry craft, illustration

Aiming to help post-brain injury patients with aphasia practice speech therapy skills, Area 23 created “Tip of the Tongue” training tool posters for Constant Therapy brain injury tech specialists. The bronze illustration award went to one called “Sheep,” where the animal is literally standing on the tip of a tongue while other similar starting words—shark, shack, shoes, shirts and shovels—hold it back.

Company: Curaviva Switzerland
Campaign: The Eventful Life of Rosemarie
Agency: Roof Studio New York
Award: Bronze, regulated healthcare professional for film craft, animation and visual effects

An animated true story, this film about one woman’s remarkable life was born as a recruiting tool for Curaviva Switzerland, an industry association for long-term care institutions. A dramatic retelling of Rosemarie’s life during and after World War II in Europe, and through generations of her family, the animation ends when Rosemarie is revealed in real life telling the story to her caregiver Livio.