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Why pharma marketers need to ditch the research for the sake of truly creative promotions

Those of us who work in advertising, particularly pharma advertising, have all been there. Sitting in a dark room with a bunch of nervous or distracted clients, watching and listening from behind the glass as some doctor drones on about how she doesn’t like the color green or that the mechanism of action is confusing or that she’d prefer a head-to-head trial or a more robust data set. Why do we do it to ourselves?

The only explanation I can find that makes sense is some marketer needs to be able to justify a campaign or message decision to more senior marketers. If you can say it tested well, who is going to argue with that or question your decisions?

I am.

In our industry, we sometimes look to the consumer advertising world for relevant analogues to help guide our decisions and keep things fresh. If I had a dollar for every time clients compare their brand to the iPhone, but it never really is.

First off, it’s difficult to compare a prescription drug to consumer products, let alone and Apple product, the whole FDA thing kind of throws a wrench in there. Second, if clients truly believed their product was the iPhone of prescription drugs, they would invoke Steve Jobs’ words – “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

The goal of market research used to be to test the market – to look for the insights or the holes or unmet needs that would drive good promotion. Testing of actual creative campaigns developed thereafter, perhaps a way for research companies to make more money or as an effort to shut down internal conflicts.

To kick off the pharma creative campaign process, the client ask is ways “out of the box ideas – something that pops – something sexy – must have stopping power,” and my favourite request, “something we’ve never seen before.”

I don’t know about other agencies, but mine takes these requests very seriously and we get excited when we work with a client who is willing to do something differently in such a stale and tightly controlled promotional environment. So we go off, we write a brief and once we have the client in agreement we pull all of our best creative staff together and pair them up (art with copy) to go off and concept. A few weeks later we get to see sketches and from there we evaluate the ideas based on the brief and current competitive campaigns in the market, then narrow things down and refine. This goes on for a bit, until it’s time for the big show to the client.

It’s usually challenging for our clients to visualize and understand ‘concept’ and most of their comments focus along the lines of how the finished journal ad is going to look. When they see something they’ve never seen before in the pharma space, the reaction is almost always the same. They’re uncomfortable – viscerally so. Rounds and round later, after medical/legal/regulatory and the big marketing cheeses have had a chance to add their own personal flair or have forced us to craft some ideas to keep on the ‘safe side’ of the FDA, the concepts are reduced to about five. There may be one or two good ones left hanging on, but the rest, well you’ve seen them.

Here’s where we go into market research, and here’s where all those initial comments about snazzy cool ideas die their final death. Healthcare professionals, particularly physicians, don’t like change, and they most certainly do not like anything that gets them to question or rethink their treatment habits, or that might make them uncomfortable. They especially don’t like humour, drug prescribing is serious business. So the one or two good ideas say their final goodbyes and one month later, when the final market research is presented, nobody is surprised and everyone can ‘live with’ the winning campaign because it’s not too outrageous or thought provoking and it checks all the right boxes on the rules and guidance.

My theory is that this is exactly why pharma promotion is boring and stuck in a rut, the stuff that changes behaviour, makes us question and, perhaps, makes us uncomfortable is most likely exactly what they, we, are the pharma industry need.

Things that have never been done before are scary, they involve risk and discussion and change but we rarely push back because we’re tired, because someone’s boss or regulatory affairs lead said no, because it’s pharma and some of us have just accepted our boring fate.

None of this stops this process, it continues with every pharma marketing team and pharma ad agency on every brand. During the initial discussions, we still hear every so often from clients their brand is like the iPhone. But Apple never tested its campaigns.

If you work in pharmaceutical marketing, my challenge to you is to recognize this pattern and try to change it for the sake of truly creative promotion that will actually drive a change in behaviour or build some brand loyalty. When your clients start to go down one of these paths, be fearless and challenge them. When your marketing directors inject their own hobbies into the brand promotion, question how that aligns with the brand strategy instead of tossing it to your agency to figure out. When you’re reviewing or presenting concepts think beyond the journal spread, think of the whole campaign. When it’s time to see what the target audience thinks, take a risk – if your brand really is the iPhone, be like Steve Jobs.

Diane Vinch is EVP, director of client engagement at healthcare communications shop Sudler & Hennessey