At some point, a subdued color palate, couples dancing in the park to music played by a hip trio and sparklers stuck in birthday cakes came to mean only one thing: pharma ads. More specifically, direct-to-consumer pharma ads. The rules and regulations surrounding DTC ads have placed such a ring-fence around the creative that pharma ads have an annoying tendency to all look and sound the same.
So similar, in fact, that health marketing agency Neon, an FCB Health Network company, created a website, pharmacheese.com, that automatically generates bland pharma ads. It’s a little scary, to be honest. And now, that work is coming to an art gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, if only for a night. Chops caught up with Kevin McHale, Neon Managing Director, to find out what’s behind the cheesy website and exhibit.
Very cool, and hilarious idea. Where did it come from?
Rod Scheck and Mike Gordon, a CD team of copy/art here at Neon originated the idea when we were looking for interesting avenues to drive recruiting efforts. We’ve been heavily focused on finding the best talent for the agency across all areas of expertise and wanted an idea that would appeal to all audiences. One thing we all agreed on was that we were sick of seeing all the clichés, tropes and rote ideas being done to “sell” work. We thought, just because it’s healthcare advertising doesn’t mean it has to be “healthcare advertising.” At the end of the day, we wanted to have fun with it. So we took that stereotype and turned it on its head. Pharma Cheese is a fun way to hold a mirror up to the industry and say, “Come on, folks, we’re better than this.” It’s also funny as hell.
How has it been received? Does everyone have a sense of humor about it?
Everyone in this business can relate to the soul-crushing experience of seeing a great campaign turned into mush. At some point in our careers we all have created or have been an accomplice to one of these cheeseball ideas and deep down we know we could’ve done better. From all the results we’ve witnessed, the idea resonates loudly, especially with creative teams. We have yet to hear any negative repercussions, and that’s important, because we’ve actually used this site to discuss expectations with some clients and the conversation has been worthwhile. So, yes, the joke seems to be hitting home. Not just with creatives but with many of our clients, too.
What are you trying to get at with this and the website?
We wanted to show that Neon never settles while also highlighting our culture. We wanted to attract similar-minded folk. At Neon, we push each other to do great work. Our philosophy is: Killer ideas save lives. We believe it and really do live it. It’s always easy to do the Pharma Cheese thing but what’s fun and great about easy? You get to the good stuff when you have to dig deep and grow with every assignment. We want the world to know that healthcare advertising should go beyond the banal, unimaginative work we see so much of today.
How many people have played around with the website?
We published the site and launched it via our social media channels. It was picked up by Ads of the World shortly after we launched and the metrics we’ve achieved have been interesting. Since its launch in February 2019, more than 2000 users have logged sessions on the Pharma Cheese Grader site. Since the launch of the gallery exhibition in November 2019, an additional 100+ new sessions have been logged as well. It seems that we’ve struck a chord with this initiative, and that others can relate to it.
Any fear that this could turn off people/potential clients?
It was never our intent to offend anyone. We believe an agency/client relationship should run deeper than just the work. Our values and visions need to align for the best partnerships. Trust, respect, and I guess a little sense of humor doesn’t hurt. And introspection is always healthy, isn’t it? So is a good laugh. We’re trying to get everyone on the same page about the need to elevate the work and create a desire to take some appropriate risks that can make change happen. This will only benefit our clients and the customers they serve.
Do you think this goes far enough?
Excellent question, we think it remains to be seen, but the dialogue has to start somewhere and that’s what Pharma Cheese is meant to do, begin the conversation because so much of what we do is geared to helping people and saving lives, so it’s a question of driving attention around our customers and how we speak to their customers to align on best possible outcomes.
Any other plans?
We may have some cheese aging somewhere… How funky? Only time will tell.