For Joanna Ruiz, EVP, senior director at BBDO and leader of the CDM/BBDO joint venture HealthWork, it’s all about the messaging. 

She attributes the company’s 2019 successes to the distinctive way it connects products to its audience. One of her favorite examples is work done on behalf of Allergan’s bipolar drug Vraylar, which she reports has seen sales growth thanks to the novel way the brand team approached its marketing. 

When patients talk to their doctors about Vraylar, Ruiz explains, they’re using metaphors that HealthWork has identified. A roller coaster, for instance, serves as a stand-in for the manic highs and depressive lows commonly felt by individuals with bipolar disorder. 

“With these metaphors, whether an elevator or a roller coaster or rapids or a carousel, we’ve depicted what it really feels like to be suffering,” she says. “Patients are seeing the work and they’re relating to it. And they’re feeling like Vraylar is the only brand out there that is honestly portraying what it feels like and is not scared to show the dark side of it, versus just showing happy shiny people and that everything’s just wonderful.”

HealthWork grew head count from 45 to 50 in 2019 and generated $33.5 million in revenue, per MM&M estimates, up from an estimated $30 million in 2018. Roster additions included AstraZeneca oncology drugs Imfinzi and Tagrisso.

In the year she’s been on the job, Ruiz has tackled her fair share of challenges. Key among them was shifting HealthWork to a more project-based approach — a shift, she notes, that has been occurring across advertising. 

healthwork Vrylar

“Whether the pressure is from procurement or from other agencies, it’s very competitive out there,” Ruiz says. “Everyone is fighting for a smaller piece of the pie.”

And that was before the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on the economy. Already, Ruiz notes, clients are pulling back spending.

That said, she believes that despite the rocky road ahead, the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries are fairly well-suited to weather the forthcoming downturn. In addition to its regular output, the industry is busy developing new vaccines and drugs — and making them accessible to those who need them for cheap or free. 

“My world is going to remain pretty busy, but we can’t ignore the impact that this pandemic is going to have on the economy overall and on what healthcare winds up doing,” Ruiz says. “We need to be scenario-planning for what this winds up looking like.”

In COVID’s wake, communications will likely become more purpose-driven — which Ruiz doesn’t see as a bad thing. The BBDO mothership has proven adept at creating memorable content for everything from candy bars to department stores, and that same creative muscle, Ruiz says, should continue to benefit HealthWork in the months ahead. 

“In pharma, the work is usually woefully average or not very inspiring. It tends to look the same and you don’t really remember the brand,” Ruiz explains. “This crisis might lead to much better work that is more focused on what really matters, which is the person. It’s more about doing the right thing versus driving profits.”

The best marketing we saw in 2019…

It’s interesting that brands that provide tangible health in a crisis are perceived as heroes: there’s the high-profile example of GM offering to make ventilators in repurposed auto plants, or Louis Vuitton making hand sanitizer instead of perfume. So we are urging every brand that we work with to take one concrete action to help with the crisis. — Joanna Ruiz