Looking back at Lions Health: Fighting for great creative, new ad formats, more competitors

Flags flying outside Cannes Lions 2019
Lions Health ended last week, but the lessons taken back to pharma companies and ad agencies will endure. (Bulik)

Lions Health wrapped last week with the usual flurry of packing up and scrambling for transportation to the airport, but not before attendees shared what worked, what campaigns they wish they had created and what they’ll take back home to talk about with their colleagues.

Inspiration is a perennial buzzword, as is the short shrifting of pharma advertising and the spread of social good. And that was indeed the case this year. However, new trends also developed during the 2019 festival around new styles of advertising, the fight for great creative and more and more players homing in on the industry. Read on for our take on what was trending at Lions Health this year.

Everyone in the health pool

Procter & Gamble, Ikea, Nestle and Samsung were just a few of the nontraditional companies on stage or award lists at Lions Health.

P&G’s sudden attendance in force at Lions Health should send a signal to pharma and healthcare marketers about the importance of the industry. It’s not as if the bellwether marketer is new to health—although it more recently bought Merck KGaA’s consumer healthcare business, it had a long-standing partnership with Teva Pharmaceutical before that.

And P&G shows up big for the regular Cannes festival. They’ve just never had such a dominant presence in the health Palais before.

So why was one of the world’s biggest, and arguably one of the best, marketers camped out in the health pavilion this year? Health is not only everyone’s business today, it’s also a major growth engine for brands and ad agencies' bottom lines.

Healthcare spending is growing at a faster rate than GDP in the U.S., while globally the health and wellness market is a $4.2 trillion industry. And over the past two years, that market grew by 12.8%, twice as fast as overall global economic growth, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

And it’s not only big business, but good for business. Attendees and speakers echoed the sentiment over and over that consumers today expect brands to tackle public health issues and champion causes.

 “We’re seeing more and more companies do social responsibility simply as part of their foundation,” said Todd Henwood, executive creative director at GSW Advertising in Toronto, adding he wouldn’t be surprised if the health and wellness part of Lions Health moved into the main part of the show.

McCann Health Chief Creative Officer Matt Eastwood, who kicked off the show with the first session, talked about it as no-ad advertising that “may not look like advertising. It’s advertising while doing good.”

Doctors—they’re just like us

One common theme in the pharma sessions, as Syneos Health's innovation and insight managing director Leigh Householder noted, was how to humanize relationships with doctors.

On one panel called “Doctors are Also Human,” for instance, P&G Health talked about how to connect with doctors in ways that are more delightful and more patient-focused. Another session,“The Doc with the Dragon Tattoo,” featured Condé Nast editors and content partners talking about the next generation of healthcare professionals and how to both help them and connect with them.

“That’s something our clients are talking a lot about, too. How do we treat physicians and pharmacists like consumers? How do we engage them in ways that get past our historic communication barriers and instead have a real conversation about the things that are changing in their practice and life every day,” Householder said.

Going beyond the tried-and-true

Print and video—and even brand film campaigns—showed strong at Lions Health, but video games, music, virtual reality and apps got their due as well.

“I’ve seen a lot of tangible examples of doing things differently, which we’ve all been trying to do, but it seems like there is real tangible momentum in the marketplace now,” said Dennis Urbaniak, chief digital officer at Havas Health & You.

He noted, for instance, one session with Vivendi Universal Music Group and Gameloft about the use of music and gaming in healthcare, which featured an illustrative “Sleep” album performance by composer Max Richter.

Another example was GW Pharmaceuticals, which presented a case study on its cannabidiol Epidiolex. The brand team created a virtual reality tour of its marijuana greenhouses in the U.K. to build trust with physicians. Meanwhile, on another stage, Sam Glassenberg, founder and CEO of Level Ex, showed the mobile games they’ve created for physician training.

Pharma brands stand for good

It tends to be a recurring theme at Lions Health that the best work usually serves a higher purpose. This year was no exception—the top prize in pharma went to GlaxoSmithKline and McCann Health for tackling chronic obstructive pulmonary disease awareness and the underdiagnosis of the disease in China.

“We saw a trend toward creativity with a conscience. And what that means is it’s not just about craft and it’s not just about storytelling. It is those things, but it’s also more. It’s creativity with a purpose, being more useful and looking at the truth we want to tell and how we want to change the world,” said Robin Shapiro, TBWA\WorldHealth global president and pharma jury chief who led the team sorting almost 400 pharma entries down to the eventual 11 Pharma Lions statue winners.

Scalable and authentic

Great ideas are great, but without the ability to reproduce them on a larger scale they're simply very nice one-offs or prototypes. Truly great ideas can work anywhere in the world and in fact are judged in the awards part of the festival with that criterion in mind. And while authenticity has always been important in pharma and health marketing, it’s become even more important for today's consumers, who now tend to be suspicious of authority.

John Cahill, CEO of McCann Health, talked about the importance of having a big footprint—that is, boots on the ground in every market. It's been a priority for the award-winning agency that picked up agency of the year and network of the year in health this year. 

“A lot of people try to fake it until they make it, and I don’t think that’s possible. You’ve got to have people on the ground living within that community and that culture understanding the context of healthcare and its delivery,” he said.

Strong-willed creatives have always fought for breakthrough ideas, said Havas’ Urbaniak, who worked at pharma companies for 20 years before switching to agency work. But it’s even more important now.

“I don’t think it’s because everyone doesn’t want to do great work. It's just the broader system was made to do certain things a certain way,” he said. “The good news is the fact you can actually measure so many more things now with technology that we couldn’t just two or three years ago, so it allows people to be more informed and build better cases and arguments to present. That’s extremely encouraging.”

Just get here already

Pharma presence was solid this year with executives from GSK, Merck, Roche, Genentech, AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer involved in panels or talks during Lions Health. Novartis even had its own tent on the beach, according to one executive, where it ran a mini innovation challenge with partners.

Pharma and healthcare agencies of course were in force to support clients and pick up awards but also to get a once-a-year rare opportunity to network, be inspired and get the skinny of world’s best health ideas and campaigns.

Jacob LaPorte, co-founder of Biome by Novartis, wrote on LinkedIn after Cannes: “If you are in pharma (even in R&D) you should consider attending this event. Designing meaningful healthcare experiences for patients and providers that seamlessly integrate therapies is paramount to improving outcomes. How well-positioned is pharma to design these experiences? My sense is that we need to put a lot more focus on this.”

Veteran creative director now at Klick Health Rich Levy added a personal take on that sentiment.

“The more people who come and see the work, who come and listen to the presentations, the better the work will get for everyone. I know personally that the first year that I came to Cannes I really immersed myself in all of the work and the work at our agency got considerably better the next year. I learned so much and I was in the industry for a long time at that point,” he said.

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