Creative partners should push pharma clients to tell better stories

As the global pharmaceutical industry deals with growing distrust, its creative partners should push drugmakers to tell a broader story about the therapies they develop and sell.

The U.S. market, in particular, is still reeling from the pricing scandals at Turing Pharmaceuticals and Valeant Pharmaceuticals. And the public has become increasingly wary about late-night TV ads that do little to promote innovation or tell a narrative about how a treatment was developed or brought to market.

“We neglect the origin story,” said Alexandra von Plato, group president of North America for Publicis Healthcare Communications Group. “Instead we run these dumb ads.”

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Von Plato, who also acknowledged that she's made plenty of those “dumb ads,” spoke Tuesday night at a Lions Health kickoff event in New York City. She is the pharma jury president for the upcoming Lions Health festival, the two-day healthcare communications component of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, held each June in Cannes, France. It will be the third year that the Lions Health takes place.

Despite industry criticism , some of the top creative executives at global healthcare advertising agencies say that pushback can create opportunities for drugmakers and other healthcare organizations to tell a stronger narrative.

“The power of ideas … is a healthcare tool unto itself,” said Josh Prince, chief marketing officer at Omnicom Health Group, and the 2016 health and wellness jury president. “We don't push our clients enough.”

Few industries are maligned as much as the pharmaceutical industry, with a growing roster of high-priced drugs and narrowing access contributing to what is already a longstanding issue, the executives said. But von Plato, Prince, and other healthcare advertising creative leaders say there is still much to be hopeful about.

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“We work in a spiritual field,” von Plato said, describing how she, like others, has found herself praying over her father's health as he struggles with heart failure. “We're not trying to create desire for something.”

If healthcare doesn't sell desire, then it seeks to sell inspiration. The judges talked about a 2013 campaign created by JWT Brazil for the AC Camargo Cancer Center that put superhero cases on infusion bags used by children with cancer. That campaign combined craft and idea, Prince said. “It's my favorite example,” he said.

Their advice for Lions Health entries?

1. The key to the entry is the 2-minute case film. (Don't enter the same entry in 17 different categories. Don't overproduce it. And, don't pack it full of fake testimonials, von Plato said.)

2. Send in the product, too, if there is one. In 2015, the team behind the Nivea sunscreen campaign sent in the doll. The judges tested the doll, putting it in the sun, with and without sun, according to Rich Levy, chief creative officer at FCB Health and a 2016 pharma juror.

3. “Simple narratives are incredibly important,” Prince said

The deadline for Lions Health entries is April 21.