New York, New York
New York City is one giant film set. Harry met Sally here. John Travolta danced his white-suited butt off here. Annie Hall, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Muppets Take Manhattan ... all shot here. It’s the city that never sleeps. And, being the latest star struck immigrant in town, neither do I. Work starts at 9.30 a.m. and I’m early. The jobs for today: review concepts for an oral contraceptive pitch and be briefed on an existing asthma drug we have. I also have to write some copy for a welcome pack to the new people coming into the department, which contains the kind of stuff I wish I’d been given when I’d joined.
I’ve spent the last 21 years in consumer agencies. Now I’ve quit my job, convinced my wife to quit hers and jumped on a plane to do pharmaceutical advertising. Here’s why: it’s a challenge, a huge major, life-changing challenge.
Pharma ads are full of happy, shiny people and that’s a problem when you start putting an agency portfolio together. The first stuff I see from the creatives, however, is in stark contrast. Full of ideas and insights. The fact that some of these creative guys have been in pharma years and are still trying to buck the trend also amazes me. Most of the team, which consists of around 20 art directors and 20 writers, come from the consumer side of advertising, which is indicative of the state of consumer advertising over here, but good news for pharma.
The agency briefs are familiar to me, as are the deliverables. We still need a compelling truth and a competitive edge. There is a target audience, there are focus groups and there is research. Lots of research. Two pretty major things get in the way of good work – one, marketing departments that promote people who have no real training and no understanding about brand building into positions of power. And, two, research groups that are run by clients and enrol doctors who, all too often, are sceptical of advertising in the first place.
To succeed you have to make sure your ideas are always on strategy and worth presenting, convince a nervous and often inexperienced client of their worth and finally hope that the research doesn’t dilute your message. It’s not unusual for the elements of several ads to be amalgamated by people who have long since lost their powers of intuition.
With the relaxing of DTC advertising by the FDA, millions of dollars are now being spent on TV advertising that promotes drugs that solve all the ailments you’ve ever had – and didn’t know you did. From allergies, high cholesterol, asthma, depression, your kids’ depression, stuff for every itch in every place. Commercials that go on for ever and include lengthy fair balance copy (or, more accurately, fair babble) tell you of all the side effects that make you wonder if you’re better off with the ailments. Most of these DTC ads could be happily edited together with your own drug of choice slipped in at the end. At the moment, ads for erectile dysfunction are huge. TV spots for Viagra, Levitra and Cialis all aired on Super Bowl Sunday. Men pump the air vigorously as though they’ve won the local domino tournament or guys effortlessly throw basketballs through hoops. Thankfully, the fair babble comes to the rescue, telling us the reason for this over-activity and warning that if anyone should have an erection for more than four hours he should consult his doctor. Laughing aside, DTC ads all end up as lifestyle images with equally formulaic voiceovers. To succeed, to make a real difference, you have to be very creatively and strategically focused and be able to stay true to your convictions. Does this sound familiar?
So here I am, going through the familiar motions of trying to produce different, compelling work. We need great ideas. We have clients that deserve the ads they approve. We work long hours and eat our sandwiches at our desk. We do karaoke. This is New York, New York, so good they named it twice and in this town everybody sings. After work, the creative team invite me to sing up or ship out. On the way there I elect not to mention my years in the Cogent band and surprise them. But as creative after creative cranks out the tunes, it’s soon clear that I could be Joe Dolce and still get a rapturous applause. These guys know how to murder a classic.
Manhattan is a long way from Edinburgh or London or any other place I’ve worked in. There are also many more hurdles in the way of producing good work in pharma, than I’m used to. But it’s not mission impossible, it’s mission difficult. And after all, what better place to accept a mission like that than New York City?