The pharma industry’s reputation as cautiously creative amid a strict regulatory environment and risk-averse executive teams may continue to hamper its ability to win the top prize at the Lions Health festival later this month in Cannes, France.

At last year’s inaugural Lions Health event, which is a spin-off of the broader Cannes Lions creativity festival, the jury declined to award a Grand Prix in the pharma category, a move that raised questions about regulatory limitations as well as the industry’s self-imposed creative boundaries.

“I expect pharma to win a Grand Prix in the next three years,” Steve Morris, managing director of TBWAPaling Waters and a scheduled speaker at Lions Health, told MM&M. “It will take something very special and it will take awhile for that kind of inspiration to filter through.”

The branded content and entertainment jury at Cannes Lions also declined to award a Grand Prix in 2014, but festival organizers still say it’s not unusual for this to happen. The Grand Prix may prove to be even more elusive if the pharma jury is again reticent to give out the top prize this year.

“In the first year there was very much a feeling that this is a test,” said Rebecca Rhodes, global executive creative director at Virgo Health and a judge on this year’s health and wellness jury. “There were a lot of questions about healthcare and creativity.”

The health and wellness jury last year did award a Grand Prix to Dentsu Nagoya’s heartwarming “Mother Book” campaign for Kishokai Medical Corp., a network of obstetrics facilities in Japan. Because the winning entries in the Lions Health Grand Prix awards are then submitted to the Cannes Lions festival, they are expected to compete at the same level as entries from the consumer packaged goods and technology sectors and not solely within a healthcare silo.

Despite the persistence of such questions, advertising executives say they expect to see stronger entries in the pharma category this year as more agencies from the US and abroad choose to participate in the event and more clients begin to take notice of the festival. Some firms took a wait-and-see approach to their participation in Lions Health, and another challenge has been making the case to pharma executives that a weekend in the south of France has more to do with addressing creative gaps in marketing than a beachside vacation. 

Viewing entries from developing markets outside the US and Europe was a primary point of inspiration for TBWA’s Morris, who cited the “My Blood is Red and Black” campaign, raising awareness about blood transfusions in Brazil, as one of 2014’s most inspiring. The campaign won a gold award in the health and wellness category.

“The inspiration is there,” he said. “That really lovely work is an inspiration that more can be done and more established markets need to think more boldly, more creatively.”

Still, the complexity of selling a drug that can save someone’s life or improve his or her health under the scrutiny of regulators and the media is vastly different than marketing consumer products and services. Improving a patient’s compliance to a medication, using data and analytics in an impactful way and changing behaviors are just some of the primary differences that define modern pharmaceutical advertising, said Matt Brown, CEO of Guidemark Health.

“It isn’t the same as the motivations to buy a car or a pair of jeans,” he said. “The message is so critical to those patients.”

That distinction is what led Cannes Lions to form the separate Lions Health event.

“The request came from industry,” said Louise Benson, Lions Health’s festival director. “They felt not enough of the content and the discussion and the context were analogous to their clients.”

Several agency executives cited scheduled sessions featuring wearables and Big Data as focus points for the festival, which begins on June 19. Executives from Google, the Consumer Electronics Association and WebMD number among the featured speakers.

In a Q&A with MM&M, Rob Rogers, the Sudler & Hennessey chief creative officer and co-CEO of the Americas who is also Lions Health pharma jury president, said that wearable technologies are redefining creativity.

“We’re not just talking about print and TV anymore,” Rogers said. “We’re talking about ideas that come together to create a third thing, and that’s very powerful and exciting.”

Looking for more Cannes Lion coverage? Here you’ll find daily news of the latest trends, themes and chatter around creativity in healthcare, live from the south of France during the two-day festival.