Alexandra von Plato is serving as this year’s Lions Health pharma jury president, leading a group of industry creative leaders judging the pharma category. She is group president of North America for the Publicis Healthcare Communications Group.

But be warned, pharma: Von Plato served as a juror the first year that the Cannes Lions festival held Lions Health — the same year that the jury declined to award the top prize in the pharma category over concerns that the submitted work wasn’t worthy of a Grand Prix.

Here, von Plato talks to Jaimy Lee, executive editor at MM&M, about why it’s wrong to compare the pharmaceutical industry to Skittles and why she expects to see more risk-taking in this year’s creative work.  

What work stood out to you last year at Cannes?

Von Plato: I wasn’t a judge. I was in the audience. What stood out in general was the continuing absence of branded pharmaceutical work in the actual awards. We’re heading into our third year. The agenda I have regarding my enthusiasm and support of Cannes is to amp up the industry’s appetite for creative originality in the work. There is certainly some amazing unbranded disease state awareness work that was done. We’re hoping that this year we see more branded originality and risk-taking — within the confines of the regulatory environment, of course.

There was some critical talk about last year’s Grand Prix winner, Take It From a Fish. Why do you think that was?

Von Plato: I thought it was a very charming and disarming way to make people care about a subject matter that is quite mundane, which is triglycerides. In that regard, it was notable work because they took a tact that was designed to disarm people’s resistance to a boring subject. In the scheme of how important this industry is and the importance of the work it does, it felt a little trivial. When we’re giving a Grand Prix, in the pharmaceutical industry that makes medicine for sick people, it’s not a stretch to come up with talking fish for fish oil. The overall feeling was: It was the best we could do, so they gave it a Grand Prix. The year I judged, in 2014, we didn’t award a Grand Prix. That campaign for fish oil was good but the sense was [that] it wasn’t Grand Prix worthy.

You have said the industry neglects “the origin story.” Are you finding that companies are beginning to value telling that story?

Von Plato: We’re going to see more companies learn how to use the storytelling palette of digital media, and not restrict themselves to what can happen in the confines of a conference booth or in a print ad or a TV spot. When you open that aperture, there’s lots more storytelling and texture you can bring to the subject matter. We’re going to see more of it because we’re starting to get more comfortable with the actual channels that allow us to express deeper stories, longer stories, more complicated stories — a variety of stories about the same brand. We’re learning as an industry to use all of that and not just say a brand is this message and this image and the goal of that is repeat that message and that image everywhere we can think of. Advertising on the internet isn’t necessarily taking advertising that was developed for mass media and putting it in digital channels. As we do that, we’re going to explore all of these new ways to tell a brand story.  

Is that because pharma is behind other industries in telling stories that way?

Von Plato: It’s easy to say that pharma is behind. What I’m more interested in communicating is that pharma has an incredibly powerful back story for every product that it makes. [There is] an amazing reason to believe that both the product is valuable and meaningful and valid, and the company behind it is valuable and caring and deliberate and valid.

The kind of research a neurobiologist does to try to find the cause or treatment of something like multiple sclerosis is very different from the person trying to develop a new flavor of Skittles. Skittles might not want to share the origin story of Skittles because it’s not that interesting and it’s not that profound. But the pharmaceutical industry has this back story. It’s incredibly powerful, validating, meaningful content, and it’s gone unused and underutilized by this industry.

We call these pharmaceutical products. It’s medicine. These companies make medicines. My big pulpit is to remind the world that the pharmaceutical industry makes medicine for sick people, medicine that people need and count on. Medicine, when people don’t have it, is a tragedy. We’ve kind of lost our way. Part of what helped us lose our way, quite frankly, is the kind of advertising value system we apply to packaged goods. We’re so busy admiring Procter & Gamble — which I do think we should admire — but there is something wholly unique and ownable by the pharmaceutical industry that they do not leverage. We’re going to see that start to change as they get more comfortable with using new media effectively, and stop trying to shove MOA metaphors in digital channels.

How has Lions Health changed the way that clients and agency leaders talk about creativity in healthcare?

Von Plato: It’s creating an appetite and everybody knows that great breakthrough work, the kind of work that’s award-winning, is the most effective work. That’s been very good for the business. I’ve seen changes in the last three years based on who wins and who doesn’t win. Even when people are complaining, it’s probably good for the business because they are saying: Why aren’t we winning more? We certainly should be winning.

This interview has been condensed and edited.