The disparity in the quantity of Pharma vs. Health & Wellness work submitted to Cannes Lions Health has been the subject of intense debate since the inception of these awards in 2014. Some say it’s a worrisome sign that relatively few agencies are aiming for award-caliber work in the regulated space, others that the imbalance is just reality, given pharma’s higher bar.

But this year, against a backdrop of a three-year Grand Prix hiatus and 363 entries in Pharma vs. 1,186 in the Health & Wellness category, that difference took on new meaning.

Pharma jury member Emily Spilko, executive creative director at Evoke, says the attitude that entrants go into the experience with is that “pharma, especially regulated pharma, is going to be the hardest category to win in, and that’s just what we’re up against. You have internal challenges, then client and regulatory challenges. There is a lot to overcome. But that’s what the pharma industry is about. We know we need tenacity and to be resilient.”

Seen in this light, the aforementioned differential is not a mere statistic but a meaningful sign. There are good reasons those who tread the regulated path are fewer in number. It takes a lot of work to get work through, and not everyone is cut out for the path.

Spilko says she and fellow jurors worked hard this year to ensure pharma entrants got a fair shot.

“We did a lot of due diligence for every single entry,” she recalls, often scrutinizing work to make sure it didn’t belong in the OTC category and then that it met the creative bar, too.


Spilko still has a little graph, created by lead juror Robin Shapiro, global president of TBWA\WorldHealth, that proved to be the jury’s “North Star” in the above endeavor. On the vertical axis reads “highest creative standards,” and on the horizontal axis appears “devotion to pharma.” Shapiro directed judges to use it when looking at entries to keep them focused and make sure they asked the right questions.

“Is it the yellow box?” became a common refrain in the jury room, says Spilko. “It gave us a great place to make sure we were being true to the category.”

Creatives across the healthcare industry should calibrate their thinking toward reaching that upper-right, Cannes-worthy quadrant, too. As tech and product design proliferate in healthcare marketing, a whole host of meaningful initiatives are being considered health-related.

Take Ikea’s excellent Thisables effort that won a Grand Prix in Health & Wellness for giving people with disabilities an opportunity to 3D-print their own adaptations of furniture. The initiative, by McCann Tel Aviv, went on to win Gold in the Direct category, too.

Creatives need to keep their eye on checking off both boxes in order to ensure the bar steadily advances. While it’s a high one, this year’s Cannes program reminds us that you can have both.

GlaxoSmithKline’s Breath of Life, by McCann Health Shanghai, blends a historical type of Chinese art with simple technology to influence a hard-to-reach population. “COPD is pretty much an epidemic in China, and this put a very simple diagnostic tool, or at least the first step, in the hands of the masses,” says Spilko.

The effort was singled out for its data visualization—the microphone on the mobile phone records the sound of a breath, and an algorithm translates the soundwave into the figure of a tree, the size of which represents the user’s lung volume—but its impact proved more profound.  

“We were looking [for] creativity that empowers people to care about their health, and for us [Breath of Life] did everything,” Spilko says. “It was really relevant for the people who were using it.”

Shapiro’s graph serves as a good reminder, as so much technology is being infused throughout healthcare, not to settle for one standard or the other. It’s possible to do work that’s truly groundbreaking and to be pharma-true.

“My message to Evoke is going to be, we won’t have an opportunity to do work like this all the time,” says Spilko, “maybe once every six months or a year. But we need to be cognizant of when those opportunities come, and we need to pursue them.”

If there’s a third criterion to be gleaned from this year’s Health Lions, it’s the need to push for creative consciousness.

“Across the board, we saw people doing really meaningful work with a conscience to make sure they’re serving their audience and the greater population,” says Spilko.

“It’s why we work in this space,” she adds. “It’s why we do what we do. Many of us could choose to live in different parts of the ad world. We’re here for a reason. It’s really important work, and we know that when we see all this amazing creativity coming out from across the globe. Despite all the challenges, I don’t think any of us would change where we are.”