Hemophilia, humor and a hipster host: Genentech spotlights its new YouTube reality show

Suha Patel of Genentech shares the new YouTube series they created with 21GRAMS for hemophilia patients. (Bulik)(Beth Snyder Bulik)

CANNES, FRANCE—A reality show about hemophilia? And it's a comedy? That would be the new YouTube  series from Roche’s Genentech and ad agency 21GRAMS called “Challenge Accepted.”

Each 15-minute episode of the show, which premiered last week, features a different patient, coach and lesson for the primary target audience of boys and young men with hemophilia and their parents. It gets that lesson across using humor—and some magic tricks.

Hosted by magician and comedian Justin Willman, the first season features six episodes that tackle issues such as relationships, sibling rivalry and depression, aiming to reach not just patients but their parents, too. One episode encourages viewers to step out of their comfort zones.

“Because people are born with it and they’ve had it for life, it impacts a lot of their life beyond just bleeding. We wanted to talk about all those things that they experience,” said Suha Patel, Genentech marketing principal in hemophilia, presenting the case study here at Lions Health.

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But Genentech wanted to engage patients in an offbeat way. 21GRAMS' research outlined the challenges—such as breaking through to a difficult-to-engage audience and addressing topics viewers wouldn't want to talk about. And then they had an "aha!" moment.

Frank Mazzola, 21GRAMS’ chief creative officer, explained that the team realized the way to do it was “the same way any culture has made every once-uncomfortable issue mainstream.” Through TV shows.

They shot the six episodes in nine days, and it was not your average commercial ad shoot. The worst storms in a decade hit California during the shoot. Finding a cast of rare disease patients wasn't easy. Plus, the team was working with a limited budget and within strict regulatory deadlines.

And then there was the challenge of being the first.

“Health does not like to be the first at anything,” Mazzola said. “When you do it, though, it’s an amazing thing and hopefully you open the door for other people.”

Patel agreed. In fact, she had told Mazzola she built the Lions Health talk around healthcare marketers' general reluctance to take risks. But as she said: “I often say you can decide in the morning if you want to be courageous or do you want to be comfortable? If you want to be comfortable, do the brochure. … If you want to be courageous, know it’s going to be a hard year.”

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Her advice to other companies after the year of the show, from creation to debut, is to make sure to take the whole company along on the journey. Inform everyone, including medical and legal departments, about what’s going on—from the beginning brief to the final production—and help them buy into a different way of doing advertising, she said.

Mazzola distilled his lessons learned to three key points: Never underestimate the power of entertainment, remember that medicine is still the best medicine but laughter helps and, lastly, lighten up.

“It’s health, but there are definitely different emotions other than inspiring or overwhelming or scary or any of those things, and it’s really time that we start looking at that,” he said.