Creativity and pharma meet in Cannes as marketers head to 4th Lions Health festival

Creative types and marketing mavens come from all over the globe for the biggest advertising festival in the world to huddle, judge and get inspired—and for the first two days, it’s all about pharma and healthcare.

Now in its fourth year, the Cannes Lions Health advertising festival draws thousands of pharma and healthcare ad agencies and marketers to the south of France. The two-day health meeting is an add-on to the decades-old main event, but growing rapidly. Last year, revenue from Lions Health was €2.5 million euros—an increase of 77% over 2016, according to corporate parent Ascential—and drew more than 2,000 total entries in the pharma and health and wellness categories, which was an increase of 40% over 2016.

But what’s really in it for pharma? Critics of the festival in general point to the big expense, with some agencies this year—WPP Group, most notably—declaring a pullback on the number of attendees and event hostings.

However, for many like Dave Sonderman, GSW chief creative officer, who will attend for the fourth time this year, the opportunity to soak up the best of the world’s health marketing intangibles of inspiration, ideation and education make Lions Health a compelling attend.

“Anyone who attends will have their mind opened to what the healthcare industry is doing. The innovation, creativity and independent thinking is impressive and inspiring.” he said. “… The session on the last day with the judges is a can’t-miss for me. They talk about what they were thinking, what the debates were in the room, and give explanations about the winners they chose and why. It has so much insight.”

He and Susan Perlbachs, GSW’s executive director, will take a divide-and-conquer approach, which he recommends for any team to get the most information and insights back home to the agency and clients. Another tip? Check out the big stage presentations online, where they're typically available a few weeks after the festival.

Perlbachs, who compiles a trends report to share within the agency when she returns, said it’s important for pharma to understand creativity and effectiveness in marketing and to even “step it up” as health and wellness grow in importance to society, and as new competitors join the market.

In fact, the Cannes Lions Health festival may actually sit in a sweeter spot than the larger more general Cannes ad fest. As healthcare and pharma concerns increase in consumer and societal consciousness, so do the attention and budgets of marketers looking to reach them. Healthcare and pharma specialty agencies are growth engines within larger ad agencies as pharma marketing spend surges. Besides, the smaller and less glitzy Lions Health show—with no celebrity rappers or celebrity endorsers—connotes a more serious tone.

That more intimate setting appeals to some like GSK Healthcare executive Marc Speichart, a longtime Cannes attendee for consumer brands. He told Ad Age that although some people complain about the separateness of health at the festival, he prefers it, likening it to the intimacy of the old Cannes. “To me, that it's become such a mass event has made it a little less attractive,” he said.

Another returnee this year is Facebook, which took the stage last year to announce its pharma-focused health unit. Meredith Guerriero, Facebook's director of the unit, said it’s an important gathering place for advertisers and agencies.

“Cannes overall is one of the most important events that takes place in the advertising industry and provides a global meeting place for marketers, creators and innovators to be able to inspire, work together and recognize the work. I think that’s especially important for health … because they’ve had so many hurdles from a creative perspective,” she said.

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.