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

Cannes Health Lions
Cannes Lions Health unveiled its shortlist Sunday, highlighting projects from AstraZeneca, Pfizer Oncology, Biogen, Eli Lilly and Cipla, among others. (Tracy Staton)

CANNES—Here’s some irony for you: Pharma creative award submissions to the Cannes International Festival of Creativity are at a record low, but a hefty lineup of pharma companies made the Lions Health shortlist released Sunday.

Multinational drugmakers from Allergan to Teva rose to the top of the pharma category, with a total of 18 companies up for Lions awards. The category includes direct-to-consumer and direct-to-patient ads, promotions to doctors and disease awareness campaigns. Last year, nine pharma companies made the cut.

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Chalk it up to a set of new rules for the pharma category in this prestigious competition, which more clearly separate pharma-specific advertising campaigns. Under the newly defined criteria, the category pits pharma-backed campaigns against one another rather than muddying the waters with creativity that doesn’t have to conform to drug industry regulations.

“Pharma advertising has extremely strict restrictions and regulations, so great creativity in this space should be recognized. This being said, the bar is still high and it will still need to be a killer creative idea to come away a winner,” said Cherie Davies, creative director at Sudler Australia and a judge in the health & wellness category, in an email interview.

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Cannes organizers reported 376 entries for the festival beginning today, down from 525 last year. The previous low for pharma was 432 entries in 2015.

Merck & Co., which won a Health & Wellness statue in 2017, is one of the finalists in consumer advertising for its corporate brand campaign created by Marina Maher Communications, “What invention can’t you wait for?” Amid ongoing pricing controversy across the industry, the New Jersey drugmaker last April released the person-on-the-street ad that compiled brief clips answering the question. “Time travel,” one woman says. “A toaster that’s transparent,” a man suggests.

“A cure” is the final answer, from a woman whose 3-year-old daughter’s cancer has been in remission since 2016. “95% of people don’t think new medicines are the most impactful inventions,” the kicker reads. “We think they’re the most important kind.”

A tiny, trash-talking spokescharacter stars in another shortlisted entry dubbed, appropriately enough, “The Wrestler.” In the awareness push for carcinoid syndrome, a tiny, spandex-dressed pro wrestler pummels a man with stomach pain and GI problems.

Created by Klick Health for Novartis, the campaign comprises a TV spot, interactive display banners and social media posts that direct people to a “What Am I Wrestling With” website that suggests constant sufferers may need to consider a different diagnosis.

A Biogen print effort from CDM New York, which features its spinal muscular atrophy drug, “Zac’s Play Day,” also won shortlist honors, as did Bayer’s “Battle in the Bone” campaign, created by Area 23, which picked up two shortlist kudos. McCann New York and Klick Health’s “Lighter Blue,” a social push on behalf of Takeda’s antidepressant Trintellix, also made it to the final round.

Among the other shortlisted ad projects were FCB Health’s work for Boehringer Ingelheim’s respiratory drug Stiolto Respimat; Havas Lynx’s film featuring AstraZeneca’s blood thinner Brilinta and Patients & Purpose’s “This Is Living with Cancer” film for Pfizer Oncology.

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Creative for Grunenthal, GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly, Cipla, MundiPharma, Roche and the devices company Cochlear also hit the shortlist.

Pharma wasn’t the only category to see shrinking submissions numbers. Health & Wellness submissions dropped to 1,482 from 2,014 last year. And total submissions to the ad fest dipped slightly, down by a few hundred to 32,753 entries. The festival organizers attributed the drop partly to the shutdown of three categories and 120 subcategories. Ad holding company Publicis Groupe’s temporary decision to sit out the awards this year also affected entries, the festival said.

“Many clients have entered Publicis campaigns into the Festival this year to support their partnership and the work they do together,” said Philip Thomas, CEO of Ascential Events and chairman-elect of Cannes Lions, in a press release. “This shows how passionately they feel about the importance of creativity in their business. But obviously there has been an impact from Publicis’ temporary decision to step back, and we calculate that impact to account for an 8% drop in the Festival’s entry numbers.”