Cannes you keep a secret? McCann's executives dish on the blueprint behind its annual award haul at Lions Health

McCann Health takes the stage as Lions Health Network of the Year winners, with CCO Matt Eastwood and CEO John Cahill, fifth and sixth from left, respectively. (McCann Health)

It’s become a Cannes Lions Health tradition. At the Monday night awards show, McCann Health teams take the stage again and again. 2019 was no exception, as the agency swept the top Grand Prix awards in both the pharma and health & wellness categories and went on to win both Agency of the Year and Network of the Year honors.

That’s a rare quadfecta at the health creativity confab. And while McCann is anything but blasé about it—McCann Health global CEO John Cahill says the agency is “over the moon” about the wins—the agency is also fairly prompt to put the Lions on the shelf and start working on campaigns for next year.

That’s just one tenet—don’t rest on the laurels, or in this case, the Lions—in the McCann Health portfolio for success. FiercePharma caught up with Cahill and global Chief Creative Director Matt Eastwood after Cannes to find out what else goes into the McCann Health secret sauce.

Cahill quickly ticked off its three foundational ingredients—creativity, strategy and science—that McCann Health has been building on for more than a decade. But not just creativity for its sake, as many in the ad industry often say, but in this case, big ideas that come from relevant strategic health insights that are grounded in science.

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This year’s Grand Prix pharma winner “Breath of Life” for GlaxoSmithKline, for instance, fits that mold. The technology-driven smartphone app in China uses the ubiquitous and growing health platform WeChat to measure a person’s lung capacity by blowing into the microphone to address the growing problem of undiagnosed COPD in China. That's the science and strategy. The creativity? A personalized piece of art, a flowering tree created in the style of traditional Chinese blow painting, “grows” on the phone screen from each user's breath.

Another key ingredient to McCann’s Cannes success is diversity, both Cahill and Eastwood agreed. By that, they mean not only traditional diversity in race, gender and religion among employees around the world, but also diversity in the offerings and ideas across the McCann Health network. People from around the globe will often be called in for campaign ideations to brainstorm and give opinions, Cahill said.

“Health is particularly influenced by culture, by climate, by creed and certainly the context of medicine. So drawing on all of those very different lenses from different countries and cultures enables us to get a pretty big picture of what health looks like globally,” Cahill said.

Eastwood offers a kind of diversity himself, coming to healthcare for the first time when he joined McCann Health in January after serving for years as chief creative officer at consumer agency JWT. Cahill’s hiring of him sent a message underlining the creativity commitment of McCann Health as well as foretelling a push to the next level, Eastwood said.

To do that, Eastwood is focused on keeping up a “constant rhythm” of reminders about what makes great creative work. He sends out a biweekly email called “What a Great Idea” to celebrate the best ideas around the network. He also came up with a diagnostic tool, the creative scale. It’s a 1-4 rating scale written on a card that sits on everyone’s desk that helps them assess their own work. Is it a 1? That’s a “safe” rating and means the work is viable but bland. It ticks the boxes but that’s about it. A 2 means the work is ascending, 3 is trail-blazing and 4 is game-changing. (FYI: Level 1 work doesn’t get very far.)

Talented people are important to creativity, of course, but they also need something more, Eastwood said.

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“Talent is what gets you a meeting with McCann Health, but passion is the thing that gets you over the line,” he said. “That’s how I try to staff the offices around the world—by hiring people who are unreasonably passionate about the work that they do. I think that translates into the work itself,” he said.

For all the wins and ingredients and secrets, though, it hasn't been an overnight skyrocket to the winner’s circle. McCann Health began its creative communications ascent more than 10 years ago. It was 2007 or 2008, Cahill said, when McCann Health global leaders got together to talk about where the life sciences industry was going.

What they saw was that the then mostly siloed stakeholders, such as payers, doctors, pharmacies, patients and pharma, were coming together. McCann realized they needed to craft ideas that would carry across stakeholders. So they created an initial platform called “A day in the lab to a day in the life,” a kind of master plan with all the components needed to introduce a health brand from evidence coming out of the lab to use by a doctor or patient, Cahill explained. That platform has evolved into the current constellation of services.  

So what’s next for the winningest network at 2019 Lions Health? Back to work, of course.

“You have to see the wins as closing out events," Cahill said. "You’ve won, great. Now there’s another match coming up, and you’ve got to win that one, too."