I love the iPad, apps, and the web. I love the entire brilliant, Jackson Pollackian explosion that is digital pharma.

Yet, much as I love digital, I have a confession: I long for the journal ad.

Every advertising era has its signature canvas for creativity. In the consumer world, print, radio and TV all had their Golden Ages, during which the best creative talent transmuted that medium’s properties into gold (or silver, or bronze). Digital crashed through this media landscape like a cyclone, uprooting the familiar thinking patterns and opening new vistas of creative promise.

Pharma’s evolution has been different, with print hanging on like an old uncle who won’t take the hint. But print’s persistence has had an upside: print, in the form of journal ads, sales aids, and even direct mail, is a wonderful medium for expression. That link between word and image that constitutes a concept–no medium allows for a more focused presentation of a powerful concept than print.

Print was the “mother medium” to pharma advertising’s own Golden Age–that period during the ’70s and into the ’90s when medical journals were heavy with ads displaying, to varying degrees, imaginative design, provocative wordplay and arresting ideas. (You can still see lots of representative work in the two volumes of Medicine Avenue, published by the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame, mahf.com)

So, I lament the journal ad’s passing only because I admire the rigor print demands—there’s no hiding on the proverbial blank page. But there’s no turning back—the digitalization of pharma is inexorable and transformational. It also opens up opportunities for powerful creative expression.

When I worked on my first big digital project back in the ’90s, I had some surprising insights into the digital creative process that still apply. I approached this project as if preparing for a trip to Mars; I was going to strap in, and blast into total newness. But a funny thing happened. I sat down, stared at the screen, and thought. I thought, and then thought some more, until I stumbled over some curious customer insight, which led to a word combination, which begat a provocative visual, until everything alchemically combined to yield something strange and unexpected: a simple, powerful idea.

I was bewildered. The idea worked; it made clever use of the dynamic, interactive properties of the medium. But what about the blinding flashes of newness (and hipness) I was supposed to see? What about the paradigm-shifting thought processes I was supposed to experience? Didn’t being a member of the digital club require arcane and mystical skills?

The digital creative process was different, as radio is different from TV, and outdoor is different from direct mail. Each medium has its own parameters, and digital can be especially different. Yet, in countless digital projects, it’s been the octane of the idea that determines how well a particular digital tactic performs.

Pharma is still in the “getting to know you” stage of its courtship with digital. (Although “social,” it must be observed, could represent an irreconcilable difference.)

No matter, the relationship will symbiotically flourish, with astonishing apps, tools and devices hurtling all over the healthcare cosmos. Yet, for all the thrilling newness I see and embrace, I keep my creative compass always pointed to one true north and one abiding truth: idea trumps everything.

And you can print that.

Steve Hamburg is Chief Creative Officer, LLNS