Whither the pharma Grand Prix? Questions abound in run-up to Cannes health fest

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The Cannes Lions are rapidly approaching, but along with anticipation comes much uncertainty among key players in healthcare marketing. A number of major changes intended to make the confab more accessible were introduced last year, but the question remains: Will U.S. pharma be a major presence at the festival in June, or will it largely remain on the sidelines as the past years have seemed to suggest? And, given other rule changes designed to separate regulated from non-regulated work, are jurors any more likely to bestow a pharma Grand Prix?

The raft of changes includes a number of practical adjustments that attempt to make the event more workable for advertising holding companies, including trimming it from eight days to five (however, Lions Health is two days and runs concurrently on the first two days of the larger festival), cutting ticket costs, and introducing nine “tracks” meant to better streamline programming. 

Marian Brannelly, a spokesperson for the festival, told MM&M the changes were intended to make the event more efficient, in addition to increasing its relevance. Pharma specifically will be broken into two categories, regulated and non-regulated, and agencies must pick one or the other. That could, in theory, result in an increase in branded pharma winners. In the four years of its existence, the pharma jury has only opted to award a Grand Prix in 2015 and 2016, for AstraZeneca's unbranded Take It from a Fish and Philips' Breathless Choir campaigns, respectively. It remains to be seen whether the awarding jury will change course this year. 

According to Brannelly, the revamp will also afford the competition more of an “apples to apples” atmosphere that would allow creativity to be judged more fully on its own merit, rather than within the context of its restrictions. “It just gives a bit more of a structure for the jury to see the work and see it through the appropriate measures of the difficulties and the challenges faced within,” Brannelly said. 

Dip in attendance?

When it comes to whether pharma will have a more robust presence at the proceedings this year, Brannelly declined to speculate. “We don't disclose attendee figures in terms of breakdown of what particular industry they're from,” she said. 

But for many creatives, the changes aren't substantial enough to draw them to Cannes. Scott Watson, who recently joined Fingerpaint from Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide, told MM&M he and his team will not be attend this year— partially for financial reasons, he said, but also ideological. 

Watson has attended the Lions festival in years past, but said the type of work that is winning — and why and how it's winning — indicates it's still not an apples-to-apples game. 

“While the work that has won is very inspirational, it's not a fair comparator,” he said. The rigor of creating an unbranded campaign, only to have it judged against a product placed in a store, strikes him as unjust. 

“There were a lot of discussions we had around separating that stuff out so some of the things we do on a daily basis for our clients or in our industry get a chance to shine.” 

Watson acknowledges he hasn't examined the new rules to come to Cannes this year, but he does anticipate a dramatic reduction in attendance. “If the same stuff wins again and they don't quite change the way they need to, there's going to be even more issues moving forward,” he warned. 

But not everyone is incensed by the tenor of the fest. Maria Verastegui, creative director at biotech company Acorda Therapeutics, won't be attending this year, not because she takes issue with its layout, but because her company is in the middle of a product launch. She said that for her, the real value of Cannes Lions is attending the full program to get a more complete picture of how advertising is changing culture and communications. 

From Verastegui's perspective, a more integrated Lions Health would actually be preferable, giving those outside of healthcare a better window into what's being done in the field. As it stands, “we sort of have health isolated, and you kind of have to make a choice to solely attend Health, and not attend the rest of it,” she said. “And if you're just going to Cannes Health, I'm not sure you get the full value.” 

Still, Verastegui said the real benefit comes from the inspiration found therein. “Even in such a challenging environment,” she said, referring to the many regulations that pharma faces, “there's still such amazing creativity.” 

The field of agencies entering work will also be impacted after holding company Publicis Groupe decided to sit out this year's Cannes Lions.  

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