Dr Ryan Wallman on healthcare ads, regulation and the impact of Covid-19

As long-time followers of Ryan (@Dr_Draper) Wallman on Twitter will contest he is one of the wittiest and most insightful advertising professionals out there.

In his role of creative director and head of copy for Wellmark, the doctor-turned-creative has a unique take on what works in the health sector when it comes to communications, but as his recently released book Delusions of Brandeur demonstrates, he has an engaging understanding on the world, and problems, of marketing.

Wallman spoke to The Drum’s executive editor Stephen Lepitak over a cuppa as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival to discuss just how marketing and health will move forward as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic while offering a few views on marketing in general too.

Here are some of the highlights from the conversation, which can be seen in full here.

On delusions in marketing...

“There are lots of them, I couldn’t count them all… firstly the obsession with new technology and with shiny new things. We see a lot of this in our industry when the next thing comes along, it was VR or AR and now it‘s TikTok.

“I‘m not saying that any of these things won‘t become massive and aren’t very important, but certainly the fascination and the infatuation with these things, when they arise in the marketing industry is a problem, particularly when they haven’t necessarily proven themselves to be more effective than other channels.“

On pharma advertising...

“Healthcare is a much more conservative industry… there tends to be a real convention... so that all starts to look the same after a while and this will persist for years.

“[This is partly due to it being] such a highly regulated industry that [brands] can't get away with a hell of a lot. There are certain phrases and styles of advertising they can get away with. So that tends to be a bit of an issue, because of that [brands] will go through rounds of medical and regulatory changes which means that everything starts to look a little bit the same.

“Occasionally you will see something that‘s very different and that‘s the category-breaking stuff that changes the industry in some ways. We‘ve seen that in the last few years... [it probably started] about three years ago at Cannes, when they introduced the Lions Health category and the festival saw a real explosion of creativity in healthcare, where people were really doing quite different stuff.

“Part of that is because it was [categorised] in the ‘wellness‘ section which was [distinct] from pharmaceutical advertising, so it wasn‘t quite as subject to the same regulatory constraints that pharmaceutical advertising needs. But nonetheless it elevated healthcare advertising to a different level.

On the impact of regulations on creativity...

“[The regulations are] very restrictive in some ways. Particularly for people who have worked on the consumer side who come into healthcare advertising or who have some kind of contact with healthcare advertising, they tend to go: ‘Whoa, what a fuck? This is ridiculous.’ I can‘t say anything.’

“But after a while, when you‘re in this environment, you start to understand what the regulatory constraints are, and you realise what you can and what you can‘t turn out. And in some ways, it can become a situation where those constraints can be somewhat liberating.“

On the impact Covid-19 has had on ads...

“It’s almost as if every brand has become a healthcare brand in some ways; every brand is talking about something related to Covid-19 it seems, which makes it a very cluttered space, if you like.

“I guess what I‘ve seen is… a lot of generalization of communications, everything‘s ‘unprecedented’. Everything is ‘these uncertain times’ where ‘we’re in this together’, blah, blah, blah.

“Everyone‘s doing Zoom ads and all the rest of it and so I think there‘s a real potential for a brand to stand out by doing something different. And there have been a few examples of that recently… brands are trying to empathize with what people are feeling and that can be difficult.“

On what’s next for health companies?

“In the short term, we have witnessed a very rapid change. As soon as the lockdown came here, our clients were saying; ‘Cancel those print cases, we’re changing all those to digital.’ All the conferences are off, they’re all virtual now. And they have been reasonably innovative in the way they did it, saying; ‘We can do a series of virtual conferences now.’ OK, cool.

“In some ways, in the healthcare space it has accelerated innovation because it’s not a traditionally innovative or progressive industry, and to give you an example, that quite a lot of them still use faxes, and I’m not joking here. We still do a lot of direct mail pieces that have fax-back order forms and stuff, which is I’m not saying anything against, but it’s generally technologically negative I think it’s fair to say.

“Now, all of a sudden, they’ve been brought forward because they have to. They will realize that a lot of things could be done in ways that they weren’t doing before. A lot of things could be done virtually, and so on. I suspect some things will change and some probably won’t change, everything won't change forever in the way that people think it will.“

Wallman spoke with The Drum’s executive editor Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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