Q&A: Omnicom Health Group's Josh Prince on provoking conversation in healthcare

Josh Prince, chief marketing officer at Omnicom Health Group, is this year's jury president for the health and wellness category at Lions Health in Cannes. Here, he talks to MM&M executive editor Jaimy Lee about the three qualities that make for a great campaign and why conservatism will not help drugmakers address reputational issues.

What work stood out to you last year?

Prince: The two things that most stand out to me: I loved Take It From a Fish. It's work that I had seen in the market and I thought, “Wow, it was awesome.” It was from a big U.S. market and a big pharma company, as opposed to something from a less regulated market. Also, I just loved that Sol de Janeiro, the skin-cancer check with tattoo artists. The good that was done on behalf of the brand was pretty remarkable. What a fresh, innovative way to keep people engaged with a health issue around skincare, which both serves the brand and people.

How did seeing this work influence your own perspective over the course of the last year?

Prince: The power of Lions Health is that it just reminds and re-reminds and re-clarifies how important creativity is to communications and to business. One delicate thing in the business world is: What's the value of creativity to communicating about health? What's overlooked and underappreciated is how much creativity is a business tool. It's really a tool to get people to engage with ideas. Without engagement, you have nothing.

People seem to get most excited about the work that is submitted to the health and wellness category. Why do you think that is?

Prince: There is a phenomenon that I like to refer to as the healthification of everything. There's no corner of commerce or communications or brands where there isn't a desire to align your brand with something that is positive and healthy. We see that in the food space and the technology space and the transportation space. Everything wants to make you well or make you safe and make you whole in some way. There are not health brands per se. They're talking about health. Healthcare does way too good a job of talking to itself. One of the problems in healthcare is the echo chamber of health. The things that are valued in the healthcare space — data, and statistics, and numbers — are not what people at large think about, or care about, or relate to. All of these other non-health things are invading the health space. They open people's eyes to what really helps communicate with people, which healthcare brands, by right, ought to be doing.

What three qualities make a great health or wellness campaign?

Prince: As a jury, we're trying to come to consensus on this idea. I think it comes down to three core things: the ability to connect, inspire, and create conversation. When I say connect, it's the ability to actually engage with people despite the fact that it happens to be a healthcare message. When I talk about inspiring, it's really the idea beyond capturing people's imagination. They have to learn from it or become motivated by it or change their minds. The best stuff has to provoke conversations because in this day and age, just broadcasting is so over. We're in a world now where anybody can opt in and opt out at any time.

You said something needs to provoke conversation to be a great campaign. There was some critical talk about Take It From a Fish. Why do you think that was?

Prince: Cannes is a truly global awards show. The American sensibility and the American point of view is literally a minority point of view at Cannes. On the reverse side of that, I don't think it has to be branded work to be great work, to drive business, and to be commercially successful, either.

After a humorous campaign won a Grand Prix, are more pharma companies willing to consider using humor?

Prince: Humor in consumer marketing is one of the most powerful tools imaginable. It's a powerful way to engage people and provoke conversations. To rule it out categorically for health is myopic and it doesn't really serve brands.

What is the state of creativity in U.S. healthcare advertising?

Prince: The whole issue of pharma pricing and direct-to-consumer advertising has become a public health issue. Because we are not a single-payer marketplace, a lot of things are third party funded and because consumers are now having to take on the cost burden of pharma, all of these issues are conspiring to make clients more conservative with their communications. There's a huge focus around value-based communications. Some of that is important and necessary, but whether we're talking about the value for different pharma brands, we still have to compete in the great marketplace of ideas. Conservatism is not going to help them. It's really going to take inventiveness, inspiration, ambition, and creativity. When it's done and it's done well, ideas can really cut through even against all of the issues.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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