Want to hear pharma speak candidly—and publicly—about marketing? Go to Lions Health

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AbbVie, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and AstraZeneca were among the pharma companies laying out case studies at Lions Health.

While pharma marketing executives were easily outnumbered by ad agency folks at Cannes Lions Health, drugmakers pulled in big audiences with play-by-play case studies and frank talk. The five pharma presenters—six if pharma trade association PhRMA is included—attacked some weighty questions: Is pharma's commercial model dying? How creepy is too creepy with big data? Can pharma really rehab its image?

On Saturday, first on the pharma docket was AbbVie with Fiona Olivier, its public affairs director for  western Europe and Canada. She spoke about the importance of AbbVie partnerships to benefit patients, highlighting work with a hospital in Greece on sustainability, another program it supports in Ireland called Appointment Angels to help patients get the most out of long-awaited appointments, and a third idea that quickly became the retweeted acronym of the day, FOFO. Instead of the traditional social media term FOMO, or fear of missing out, Olivier talked about patients FOFO, or fear of finding out, as a strong driver in keeping patients away from doctors’ offices. AbbVie is tackling the problem by working with outside experts in areas like gaming and technology, and focusing on people aged 40-60 whom she said are “sleep walking toward disease.”

(Olivier was also the executive who tweeted later that night from the awards show: “Not one patient, nor pharma company represented in jury for pharma creativity @Cannes_Lions.”)

GlaxoSmithKline also took the stage on day one of Lions Health to talk about using emotional intelligence in brand building. Along with its agency Wunderman Health, GSK outlined how they used data and machine learning to create an emotional connection to its brands. In marketing its nicotine products Nicabate and Nicotonell, the agency gathered personal data from multiple sources and fed it into an algorithm to profile smokers trying to quit. They then tested their creative approaches to determine which profiles responded to which ads. Machine learning helped the company target its message with greater specificity. One major insight? Smokers on their first quitting attempt think differently from those who had tried before, and would-be quitters responded more to creative that aligned with their own reasons for quitting. Because of the volume and wide-ranging sources of data, the algorithm spit out some very specific profiles. Asked by an audience member how the agency handled privacy issues, Wunderman’s William Martino said a “moral compass” is absolutely essential. “If it feels like you’re going too far, chances are that you are going too far,” he said, “and you’d better back away a bit.”

Close to the end of the day, Pfizer executives Dana Gandsman, senior director of reputation communications, and Ed Harnaga, vice president of corporate affairs, grabbed attention beginning with a candid appraisal of the pharma industry’s ailing reputation as one of the drivers for its corporate image campaign “Driven to Discover a Cure.” They showed a word cloud slide that included a host of negative terms including "behemoth," "greed," "indifferent," and “deceitful." They then pulled back the curtain on their first TV ad in that campaign, from the early ideas they discarded to top executives’ reaction to the “Before it Became a Medicine” ad when it was in development. (Some of the feedback shared: R&D chief Mikael Dolsten pointed out that scientists use computer models, not whiteboards, to do their math. “Why is he up on a ladder?” he asked of the ad. Because it’s more visual and relatable, was the answer.) Gandsman and Harnaga also outlined the impact measured during the ad’s first six months on the air. One key takeaway: Viewers’ opinions of Pfizer improved by 47%.

On day two of Lions Health, Carey Reynolds, Allergan director of marketing for Restasis consumer business in the U.S., took the stage along with agency FCB, Chicago, for a Q&A with Facebook’s head of healthcare Meredith Guerriero asking the questions. The group talked about the challenges of social and mobile pharma marketing that range from adverse events and creativity expectations to the risks of being the first to take on new technologies. Reynolds said the industry needs to look at adverse events more positively and as simply the price of one-to-one communications with clients. Oh, and by the way, pharma, stop standing by while others innovate and truly tackle creativity, she said. “Stop waiting for someone else to go first. Be an innovator,” she said. “Let’s get really serious about great creative. It’s time to really turn it up. We’re in the business of changing lives … and we should actually have the best creative, not the worst creative.” Reynolds noted Allergan’s own efforts in pushing the creative envelope and said, “We’re paying so much more attention to creative. We think having really strong creative—not just good creative for pharma—but really strong creative, is essential to get that breakthrough.”

The final pharma presentation came from AstraZeneca and a talk on its collaboration with Babylon Health using telehealth and artificial intelligence for COPD patients in the U.K. AstraZeneca’s John McCarthy, VP of global digital, figures that pharma’s current commercial model will soon be obsolete, thanks to shifts in the way healthcare is delivered. So he and his group teamed up with the healthcare app creator Babylon and England’s National Health Service to put artificial intelligence and telemedicine into the smartphones of Brits in several cities around the country. App users can discuss their symptoms with Babylon’s virtual triage nurse, and, if the AI engine decides it’s warranted, make appointments for doctor visits via telemedicine, right on their smartphones. McCarthy said pharma’s fundamental marketing approach—reaching doctors—hasn’t changed much since he got into the business 30 years ago, and technology like Babylon’s is likely to upend that channel. But how do drugmakers reach a doctor who’s behind a telemedicine screen? “The way healthcare is delivered will run away from our commercial model,” McCarthy said. “How do we get there first?”

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.