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Health Marketing

Industry checkup: how creative is the healthcare business?


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

September 21, 2018 | 8 min read

We ask the industry, including members of Cannes Lions 2018’s health and wellness jury, about the creative health of healthcare, and which countries are leading the way.

doctor image from unsplash

Clockwise: Bruno, Andrew Hansen, Stephanie Berman and Tom Richards.

Tom Richards, chief creative officer, Havas Lynx

Creatively, it’s such an exciting time to work in healthcare. Perceptions of healthcare advertising are changing, communication channels are changing and creativity is being pushed further and further all the time. I’ve noticed a massive renaissance in craft – photography, illustration, CGI, direction, writing, cinematography. It’s fantastic to see how high production values are right now.

And it’s easy to see why there has been such a shift change. Our pharma clients and their brands are facing fierce competition. We must use all of our creative skills to cut through and engage with our time-poor healthcare providers. Our patient audience is undeniably savvy. Its knowledge of healthcare is not to be underestimated.

It’s true we’re seeing lots of firsts and they are to be applauded, but we must go further. It’s no longer acceptable to create ideas that are a first for pharma – originality is the key.

And when we embrace this we’ll change the perception of pharma advertising forever.

It’s tricky to say which country is leading the way for creativity because of closed loop marketing and the limited visibility of branded work, but after sitting on judging panels and attending many awards shows I’d say the Brazilians always have a refreshing take on problem solving. Their craft is on a different level.

The US is way up there too. Just look at the awards scooped by FCB and Area 23 last year – multiple Grand Prix and Agency of the Years. These are the guys that make me say ‘Bastards!’ more than most.

Lyndon Louis, senior creative director, Havas Life Sorento

I’d like to begin with my definition of the ‘pharma’ industry. I believe, unlike geographical borders, one can’t really draw a demarcating line between pharma, health and wellness. The textures often overlap. But we are lately seeing some very interesting work coming not just from the pharmaceutical companies. Samsung’s ‘Voices of Life’ initiative for pre-term babies, for instance. Or the HUL Lifebuoy initiative against diarrhea deaths in rural India. Creativity levels are at an all-time high.

The US and UK, I feel, display consistent courage in terms of creativity and execution.

Stephanie Berman, former partner and chief creative, The Bloc

We’re improving. The best work stands up against the best from any vertical, but we need to get to exceptional more consistently and execute with more polish, particularly for professional healthcare audiences.

A few years back I would have said Brazil was the most creative country, but we’re now seeing great ideas from all around the globe, bringing a diversity which is very encouraging.

Andre Hansen, creative director, Anthill Agency

Having had the amazing opportunity to cut my teeth on healthcare advertising 13 years ago, I simply cannot imagine working in another industry again. I’ve worked with many passionate professionals around the human condition, with a sense of purpose and knowing that our work can result in something meaningful for healthcare professionals and patients. In my opinion, healthcare marketing teams have some of the most creative individuals out there, solving important health-related problems in a complex and strictly regulated industry. Teams across the globe are constantly pushing creative boundaries and driving new innovation, but this stays a complicated process. In short, for pharma advertising, you have to know the rules to break the rules.


Orla Burke, senior vice-president and partner, FleishmanHillard Healthcare

Too often the pharmaceutical industry sacrifices idea-driven creative for design creative. And, in an industry with human stories at its core, this is a real shame. But still I continue to be impressed by work from the Nordics – notably their irreverent sense of humor and strong design aesthetic

Bruno Abner Rebelo, creative director, McCann Health

It has had an accelerated growth in the last three years, but still has a lot of ground to cover. There isn’t one specific country ahead of the rest in this respect, but I have seen a lot of creatively relevant ideas coming from Asia in general.

Siân Dodwell, chief strategy officer, Publicis Life Brands

Healthcare has traditionally been seen as a creative backwater, packed with lazy benefit visualizations, stock shots and wistful old couples looking out to sea. Pay attention though, because while the gurus of advertising wring their hands over the declining quality of the 30-second ad, a golden age of creativity is dawning in health.

A combination of the Cannes effect, innovation and client ambition is seeing the creative bar set higher and higher. In the last 12 months alone we’ve seen our ideas made reality by talent including Rankin, Tony Kaye, Paul Cocksedge and Stephen Mangan.

As strategists we’re lucky, these are the world’s most emotive and high involvement issues. We drown in insight and stories of tragedy, triumph and the human condition feed our briefs and ignite our creative teams. Of course some categories remain a sorry state of affairs – veterinary or aesthetic medicine, for example, are still stuck in a kind of creative coma. And we all have clients who like to Microsoft the Apple. But that’s the reward – taking creatively cautious brands out of their comfort zones to make something extraordinary. All the while helping one more person live with, fight or survive a potentially life-changing disease.

Carol Ong, president, Bebebalm

Pharma and healthcare have different sets of challenges, and so the yardstick for creativity is slightly different. Having an amazing insight or fresh storytelling is good, but not enough. In healthcare there seems to be a bonus unspoken question: ‘Does this idea truly contribute to the betterment of society?’ There’s more focus on problem-solving creativity and functional innovations. The work is getting better and better. These are exciting times for health and I’m excited to see more and more crazy creativity relevant to the times.

India’s ‘Immunity Charm’ [Cannes Lions Grand Prix for Good winner 2017] wows me still. Australian agencies are also pushing creativity in healthcare. But for game-changing ideas that are really shaping the future in healthcare, China is the most amazeballs.

The country has very specific issues and these are being solved in fresh ways by startups and by tech giants Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu. They just rarely create case study videos for awards shows.

For instance, medical insurance platform Shuidi provides a crowdfunding platform that lets patients ask for financial assistance for ballooning medical bills. Getting a message from a friend in need will hit harder than any ad for medical insurance.

Hospital visits in China entail complex, time-consuming processes. Mobile social platform WeChat simplified this with its Smart Healthcare. It worked with hospitals and repurposed social media for mobile queues, mobile payments, hospital communications and even receiving of medical reports.

Healthcare creativity in China today means having AI that helps diagnose nearsightedness and farsightedness, or wearables that predict heart attacks days in advance. In my humble opinion, these are the sort of meaningful creativity that our healthcare clients will expect soon. Not just another online film.

To learn more about the healthcare marketing sector, pick up a copy of The Drum’s October issue, where we check in with Babylon founder Ali Parsa; discover how changing attitudes to food and health are fueling the vegan dollar; and look at the medical and health subscription startups that could change the way we manage our health.

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