The Lions Health festival celebrated its fourth birthday this year. With the sun of southern France now a distant memory, we ask four people whether the newest addition to the Cannes schedule is gaining traction and respect in its specialised but lucrative target audience.

First organised in 2014, Lions Health runs on the Saturday and Sunday prior to the main events of the week —although the two sets of awards (the Pharma Lions, and the Health & Wellness Lions) are handed out on the Monday night, the same night as the PR Lions.

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It attracts around 2,000 attendees — 2016’s figure was 2,028; 2017’s was not yet available. Entrants in both awards categories rose by 9% in 2017, to 2,023 for Health & Wellness, and 582 for Pharma. The average across the 24 Lions categories was around 1,700.

The relative dearth of Pharma entries, and the fact that Lions Health is very much a separate affair to the rest of the week — different attendees, different name badges, and in many cases different issues — are two factors for the Lions to keep an eye on.

Winning formula

Dick Dunford, creative partner at Creston’s creative engagement agency Loooped, was on the Pharma Lions jury this year. He had also been a juror in 2014. He says the Health & Wellness awards scheme was increasingly attracting entrants from a wider range of consumer goods companies than just typical health firms.

In Health & Wellness, the Grand Prix winner was Meet Graham, which would go on to win awards throughout the non-health bits of the week, while Gold winners included work for Cigna, a health insurance firm represented by Edelman (below), razor brand Gilette, and Unilever shampoo brand Clear.

“Health & Wellness could easily be integrated into the wider festival,” Dunford says.

Nicole Yost, UK head of healthcare at Porter Novelli, goes further, saying it felt like the awards had been “hijacked” by consumer goods and non-pharma work.

“There is a question as to whether this was because of the award categories, the entries themselves, the judging process – or just that the pharma work was not creative enough or good enough,” says Yost, who spent the weekend in Cannes but did not enter work.

The Pharma Lions do tend to feature more pharma industry entrants — although of the just six Gold Lions awarded, four went to Immunity Charm by McCann for Afghanistan’s public health ministry (below), and there was no Grand Prix awarded. Branded pharma work — i.e. campaigns for branded drugs themselves — featured sparingly among the 25 winners.

Dunford says that big pharma’s reticence towards such award schemes would have created a “barrier to entry” that will have exacerbated this problem — but he also thinks the Pharma Lions entry categories needed to continue to be improved to encourage entries.

“It’s evident that professional campaigns will struggle against a piece of beta healthcare tech or an emotionally charged public health campaign,” he says. “It needs to be professional health comms [i.e. branded pharma work] against professional health comms, they need innovations up against innovations, and public health against public health — all in the pharma category, but differentiated,” he says.

Louise Benson, director of the Lions Health, acknowledges these concerns and says the organisers had “worked closely” with the industry since 2014 to ensure sensible definitions and categorisation in Health Lions awards — in Pharma, in particular. “We recognise the importance of branded pharma work to this industry, and will again reflect on the structure of our categories to ensure that it enables the best judging of that work,” she says.

See also: Lions Health jury declines to award a pharma Grand Prix

Of the crossover between Health & Wellness and the rest of the week, Benson contested that the key difference was that these awards were judged by health experts. “If they reach similar conclusions to other juries throughout the week, it is a signal of the quality of the work,” she says.

While Yost was taken aback at the types of products represented in Pharma Lions winners, she says she was buoyed to see PR tactics at the heart of successful campaigns — Immunity Charm and Meet Graham, in particular. She says this encouraged her to consider entering next year.

Dunford, meanwhile, says: “I would suggest that a good third of all entries either had a PR aspect or were created to generate as much free dialogue or column inches as possible.” He also calls PR “one of the most exciting areas” for pharma firms to consider in their marketing mix.

That an outsider would echo what has been enthusiastically suggested by the PR industry itself should provide encouragement to the industry.

The event

The investment in taking people to the festival, paying their entry and putting them up, is no small beer – but one many are prepared to make.

Reckitt Benckiser took a total of no fewer than 22 people to Cannes, from across its R&D, market insights and marketing teams, according to its executive vice president of category development, Roberto Funari.

The 22 included 16 people who would participate in its annual Innovation Hack event. The event attracted around 85 people in person, and Funari says it has reached more than 70,000 via Facebook Live.

Funari says the festival was “a great opportunity to connect and network with all of our global partners and agencies in one place,” and went on to say: “Lions Health gives the healthcare industry the attention it deserves and showcases just how creative you can be in empowering people to think about and focus on different health issues.”

While RB was supported at the event by its agency Virgo Health, Benson says two pharma firms — AbbVie and Pfizer — pitched ideas for conference content at the Lions direct, rather than through an agency, which suggests the Lions brand is increasingly relevant within the pharma world.

Of the events on offer, Yost says she particularly enjoyed “eye-opening” sessions focusing on VR, and its applications in surgery, in treating PTSD, phobias, and other conditions. “There is still a debate to be had between those who think VR is over-hyped, and those who see it as a game-changer. In health it has real potential to be the latter,” she says.

While her first Cannes experience was positive, Yost hints at a feeling of being a warm-up act. The weekend dates “meant that many of us were leaving Cannes as others arrived for the ‘main event’ during the week,” she says, adding: “Most of us did not stay on to see the likes of the celebrity panels and parties on the beach.”

Benson says she is conscious of this relative lack of glamour.

“We placed an emphasis on getting creative speakers from outside of the industry in response to feedback asking us to provide the broad and leftfield inspiration that feeds creatives’ souls,” she explains, pointing to sessions with photographer Platon, architect Bjarke Ingels and former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino.

Of course, it could be argued that the pharma industry is too conservative for too many yachts and celebs — or that its sensitivities over its image would make these inappropriate. Benson and her team face a tough balancing act to get that right — but as things stand, 2017’s rise in entries shows that Lions Health is doing something right.

This story originally appeared in PRWeek.