At last year's first Health Lions awards, there was no Grand Prix for the pharma category, and U.S. agencies trailed their international counterparts in wins. FCB Health CCO Rich Levy blamed it on the regulatory hurdles faced by health advertising.
But the jury for the Health Lions, which preceded the world's largest and most prestigious advertising awards show, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, wasn't moved by the blame game or some of the work, regardless of which region it came from. A clear message was sent to every agency exec hoping to win big: Be more creative.
Just like that, an award show would inspire more than self-congratulation and networking at the bar. It would potentially inspire the conservative healthcare industry to be better.
So Mr. Levy got it together.
"The first thing I did was look outward and say the international regulations are so much easier than the U.S. regulations," said Mr. Levy. "But the more I got into it and the more I looked at what was winning and what we wanted to do I realized that was an excuse and a crutch."
He instituted a new workshop at the firm called What If, in which staffers would once a month compete for the best ideas for their clients, regardless of region or regulation. Every person was required to come to that meeting with a "What if we did this" idea.
Those ideas were inspired by a post-Cannes analysis, showing that virtually all the winners had a "higher [standard] of doing good for humanity," he said. "I think we took that to heart and upped our game."
One example he used was a melanoma awareness effort in which the shop built a fake tanning salon with a funeral parlor in the back room for Mollie' Fund (see video above). It promoted the effort through various social channels. "Last year, I probably would have tried to create a print ad or a traditional healthcare educational campaign," he said.
"American agencies, which are often criticized for their poor creative because of a highly regulated environment and very conservative clients, did not do so well [last year]," said McCann Health Global CCO Jeremy Perrott in an e-mail conversation before this year's winners were announced. "However, with a passion to win and be seen as credible players on the world stage -- and, I suspect, also taking a good hard look at themselves -- this year I believe we will see more U.S. agencies on stage picking up Lions. No excuses."
He was right. Not only was there a Pharma Grand Prix; it was a U.S. agency team from Digitas LBi New York that won the top prize for an AstraZeneca campaign. Like most winners this year in both the pharma and health and wellness categories, which were focused on changing behavior, the DigitasLBi winner sought to educate unhealthy men about the health benefits of triglycerides.
Leo Burnett Mexico took home the top prize in the Health category with a campaign for Always that created new words for an idigenous population in Mexico, where the leading cause of death among women is cervical cancer.
"We've got to make [the creative] even better," said Nick Colucci, CEO of Publicis Healthcare Group, a network housing a number of Publicis healthcare agencies. "We learned something last year and I do think we applied it this year to some of the work, in raising our quality of work or the edginess in which we'd push things. I also think we learned what to submit and what not to submit."
Mr. Colucci said that one indicator that last year's award show impacted agencies' confidence and creativity was a small campaign out of U.K.-based Lifebrands. The agency team had to push hard for the campaign to be a contender at last year's festival, and ultimately it won a Health Lion. "It just proved that it was honored in the right way and proved that we've got to work harder," he said. "Sometimes we are doing great work; were just not selling it hard enough. It probably gave people some more confidence to do that."
Is It Selling?
But is the kind of creative that the festival is inspiring amongst health agency staffers the kind of creative that sells product? At this year's festival, the theme for winning work solved a larger world problem through education, philanthropy and changing consumer behavior -- a bindi that supplies an iodine supplement to women in rural India, for example -- as opposed to outright promotion of a specific product.
Health creatives and jury members agreed that more world-changing work was for the best, but at the end of the day these companies have to sell stuff.
The best brand work did both, explained Lions Health Pharma Jury President Rob Rogers during the press conference announcing the winners. He used the example of a specific pharma brand that dealt with opiate addiction. "There was a traumatic recognition the insidious nature of the problem," he said of the work. "It remains a brand communication, and it's very powerful for that. Sometimes it's more difficult to define a pharma brand on its merits, and it's not enough to talk about a brand isolation."
Mr. Levy thinks we'll continue to see life-changing work, but also more product-specific ads next year. "The amount of time it takes to get an RX product campaign out is more than the 12-month Cannes cycle," he said, adding that it takes about 18 months. "We have work in the pipe now that was just too late for Cannes this year, but will be Cannes-ready next year."
And that work will also be inspired by the festival. "The core of our entry next year will be different than anything we've ever done for an RX product in the U.S.," he said. "It was inspired by a What If idea."