In just three weeks’ time, the first ever Cannes Lions Health festival of creativity gets underway, welcoming healthcare marketers and communicators from across the globe in a celebration of creativity and innovation. (There is still time to reserve your place here.)

But with its unique structures and rigid regulations, is healthcare even the right environment for fostering and nurturing creative bravery in communications? Here are two views from global execs at Novartis and Mundipharma.


Julie Morrow, PhD, head of communications, Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd. (above)

Catherine Steele, global head of communications and patient relations, Novartis Pharma AG (at left)

For those of us working in healthcare communications, especially in the arena of prescription pharmaceuticals, we and our colleagues are working in an environment with a high level of external scrutiny and regulation about what we do and how we do it. This leads to an increasingly risk-averse environment internally. In this light, is it even possible to hope for creativity in healthcare communications?

Yes! At least, sometimes.

The key to success goes beyond the basics of ensuring your campaign fits in clearly with the brand or company strategy, and having measurements in place to assess its impact. Success requires full senior management support, sometimes at the very top, and strong cross-functional collaboration.

Using this formula, we have had some fantastic examples of creative success with online media and digital campaigns at Novartis.

Social media and mobile technology have quite simply turned communications on its head. Consumers, patients and HCPs are using an increasing number of online portals to seek knowledge, talk to each other, and challenge the status quo. Whereas the pharmaceuticals industry is still mostly stuck in the way we communicated 20 years ago.

Management at Novartis recognized that this was a large disconnect in our business, and fully supported and encouraged teams from communications, patient relations, legal, medical, marketing and regulatory to collaborate and find a path forward. In other words, how “can” we do it rather than identifying what “cannot” be done.

Following this route of jointly working, where each function wears both their creative and compliance hats, we recently launched several innovative programs that were unthinkable for us just a few years ago.

In ophthalmology, The Sight Experience application in our Set Your Sights campaign brings a personal touch to disease awareness, helping those with full sight experience the impact of visual impairment online with their own images and photos from Facebook.

In dermatology we have ventured into two-way communication with the public via our social media platform Skin To Live In, which also includes disease education for patients and physicians.

And recently in the UK, we launched a mobile application for multiple sclerosis (SymTrac), largely shaped by patient input, that helps people with MS track general well-being and symptoms over time and allows users to make the most of their time with their physician by providing an objective picture of how their MS has been since their last appointment.

We have to be mindful and responsible for managing risk for our companies, and we need to be striving always to do what is best for the patient. This does not mean we cannot be creative. However, we need the support of our senior management in these efforts, and we must act like a single team with colleagues across the business.

United we stand, divided we fall.


Sameer Desai, Head of consumer healthcare, Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa & Latin America, Mundipharma

The thought of “creative bravery” in healthcare communication would send a shiver down the spines of many pharma marketers for whom the perceived risk of the campaign violating regulations and not being approved by internal functions is just not worth the effort.

However, in my opinion, there is a big role for creative bravery in pharma marketing, and the benefits of improved outcomes—be it HCP endorsement or patient compliance—far outweigh the potential risks.

Creativity works as much for HCPs as it does for consumers. The key is to be aware of what the regulatory environment is, and then to work within that to develop a creative piece of communication. If you are developing global communications, then develop it considering the majority of the markets including the most liberal ones rather than be constrained by the most regulated market. 

Creative campaigns are often rich with emotions, but how many pharma brands have any emotional benefits in their brand positioning beyond the word “trusted?” How many think that they can talk beyond their molecule to the HCPs? How many of us pharma marketers truly make the effort to get to know our patients and the frustrations of the HCPs? How many of us truly recognize that hospitals are filled with highly emotional moments between patients and HCPs on a daily basis?

Reflecting these emotions in our communications greatly enhances impact. And the best part is that this does not violate any regulations that I know of! The patient’s emotional journey can be brought to life much better nowadays through patient videos and blogs. Having moved from fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) to healthcare, I can say that I have had more successes with emotion-rich creative campaigns on pharma brands than with bland rational ones.

As an example, for a prescription brand, I developed a digital detail aid resembling a teenager’s diary (with all quotes taken from actual blog posts of sufferers) to show the emotional impact of the condition on teenagers, their expectations from a treatment and the hugely positive impact treatments had on their life. We then showed how our brand addressed patient concerns and matched their treatment expectations. This refreshing approach broke through the clutter and succeeded in significantly increasing prescriptions vs. all previous campaigns focused on the bland “my molecule is better than theirs” communication.

Sometimes, pharma marketers are their own worst enemy, focusing only on their product, and ignoring the patient and “the person” behind the HCP. Also, they assume that creative campaigns will either be rejected or violate codes, rather than trying to push the boundaries. No doubt, this requires an “open” mindset among the different functions who sign off on the campaign, but it is the marketer’s role to educate them.

From personal experience, I know this is difficult, but not impossible. And once you do this, you will write a great creative brief with rich patient and HCP insights that the agency will love working on, resulting in highly effective creative communications leading to improved health outcomes, better brand equity and improved sales.