The conversation at this year’s Lions Health festival had little to do with whether the entries and award winners were good enough to win a Grand Prix. 

Instead, the talk focused on creative issues that most pharma marketers are currently grappling with, such as how best to incorporate technology into a marketing program, and how brands and companies are still falling short when it comes to taking into account the needs of the patient.

See also: Philips takes the pharma Grand Prix at Cannes

That’s a sharp departure from the conversations being had during the first two years of Lions Health, the specialty healthcare show created by Cannes Lions. In the past, the pharma jury questioned the quality of work submitted to the awards program, declining to award a Grand Prix the first year, and some executives took issue with last year’s Grand Prix winner, an unbranded disease awareness campaign for AstraZeneca and developed by DigitasLBi that used humor to encourage men to get their triglyceride levels checked.

The word du jour here in Cannes is “cinematic.” “They tell a story that is uplifting, complex, and cinematic” was how Alexandra von Plato, this year’s pharma jury president and group president of North America for the Publicis Healthcare Communications Group, described this year’s pharma Grand Prix winner.

Philips worked with Ogilvy & Mather London to develop the Breathless Choir campaign, which featured people with lung conditions like COPD and cystic fibrosis who participated in a choir that helped them learn to sing. Philips makes respiratory devices.  

Cinema is king. The use of longform storytelling was prevalent, both in the Grand Prix-winning Breathless Choir campaign as well as in many of the pharma entries, von Plato said. “It expanded on the human condition in a cinematic way,” she noted.

Other jurors agreed with von Plato’s assessment. “It’s an incredible piece of storytelling,” said Rich Levy, FCB Health’s chief creative officer and a pharma juror.  “It’s a classic example of telling a story through cinema,” said Chris Duffey, EVP and global director of creative technology at Sudler & Hennessey, and a health and wellness juror.

Virtual reality isn’t ready for the main stage. Several entries in both the pharma and health wellness categories used virtual reality, but few of them used the technology as a tool to enhance the campaign rather than served as the center of the campaign, jurors say.

None of the pharma medals went to VR campaigns this year. Von Plato described most examples of VR in the pharma entries as “not terribly compelling.” Duffey noted that many of those campaigns “lead with the technology rather than the story.”

One off-cited standout, however, was Excedrin’s Migraine Experience, which won a silver and a bronze lion in health and wellness. That campaign created a virtual reality of what it’s like to experience a migraine and then shared that experience with the friends and family members of people who have migraines.

Music can help drugmakers reach patients. One of the gold winners in the pharma category was a Teva Neuroscience campaign, developed by Havas Life Sao Paulo. Teva worked with Spotify, which created a program that selects songs automatically to maintain the best pace for people with Parkinson’s disease. An unnamed creative executive at a large holding company agency said that some pharma brands are incorporating music in their campaigns as a better way to connect with patients.

Pharmaceutical brands still need to demonstrate more empathy toward the patient. With Breathless Choir, which cites the name of the breathing machine used by the people singing in the choir, the campaign still didn’t “feel like a product push,” Levy said, adding that Breathless Choir could have just as easily been made by a drugmaker that makes medicines that treat COPD or cystic fibrosis. “There’s nothing in Breathless Choir that could not have been done by a pharma brand,” Levy noted.

During a session led by Weber Shandwick’s Laura Schoen, Genentech’s Ed Lang, and Alan Blassberg, a documentary filmmaker, they talked about the prevalence of unconscious bias in the healthcare system. Genentech has worked primarily around the issue of bias in lung-cancer screening and treatment options — a fraught issue in part because of the bias people hold about whether smoking contributed to the disease — while Blassberg is working on raising awareness about the fact that men can be carriers of the BRCA genes, which mean individuals have a higher risk of certain cancers like breast cancer and ovarian cancer. “It’s an untapped opportunity and issue in healthcare communications,” Schoen said later.