Why those prescription drug ads are now oh-oh-oh so sexy
“Someone please let me in on what’s going on with pharmaceutical advertising,” a VP and creative director recently opined on the anonymous networking app Fishbowl. “Why is it the dumbest, most juvenile shit on television? It’s all horrible. My guess is you guys are getting paid a lot to work with a bunch of know-it-all, god complex doctors.”
To which a Saatchi & Saatchi employee responded: “It probably feels very frustrating to see a lot of your mentees and even colleagues go over to pharma during this dry spell. Especially knowing what may be waiting for them creatively. But here’s what’s also waiting for them: a shit ton of cash, the opportunity to provide for their family, less ego and less pressure to be ‘always on.’”
That exchange, melodramatic and contentious as it was, sums up pretty well what’s going on in the healthcare marketing space. Creating those commercials featuring animated bladders (Myrbetriq), ungrammatical mnemonic devices ("Du More with Dupixent") and happy peppy people going about their days in perpetual mild shock ("Oh, oh, oh Ozempic") has become one of the sexiest jobs in advertising. Healthcare advertising for direct-to-consumer drugs with barely pronounceable names is now a salve for ad agencies wounded by pandemic-induced spending slowdowns in other sectors.
Consider the numbers: In its recent second-quarter earnings report, Omnicom Group's worldwide revenue plunged 24.7 percent. Sales in every division fell except healthcare, which posted a 3.2 percent increase. Publicis Groupe reported an organic sales decline of 13 percent for the same quarter, noting in its earnings release that “most activities were negatively impacted"—except healthcare, which saw double-digit growth. Interpublic Group of Cos. CEO-Chairman Michael Roth said on a second-quarter earnings call that the company’s healthcare business “continued to grow in the quarter" even though the holding company's organic sales fell 9.9 percent for the quarter.
COVID, has in fact, brought more attention to the category as consumers worry more about their health. “We are witnessing growth in the health sector with clients continuing to invest in new product launches and finding ways to produce during COVID-19 quarantine restrictions via remote shoots,” says BBH L.A. CEO Frances Great. “The appetite to bring difference to the health category has been heightened during the pandemic, which is an exciting development, especially at a time when many other categories are under pressure to reduce investment.”
And now that states are slowly opening up, marketers are anxious to remind consumers it's once again safe to venture out to see their doctors. MullenLowe U.S. CEO Lee Newman says the agency’s healthcare business “has been a bright spot for us,” noting that healthcare clients have marketed and advertised steadily throughout the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, of course, DTC drug spending was already a huge business. According to an Ad Age Datacenter analysis of Kantar data, medicine and remedies was the fifth most advertised category overall last year, with $10.1 billion in spending. The top 10 advertised prescription drugs alone accounted for $2.2 billion in pharmaceutical spending, which explains why you see so many pitches for the same drugs over and over as companies race to imprint their product names in consumer minds before their patents expire.
According to Business Insider, agencies are paying healthy salaries for creatives in the sector. For example, it cites an open VP and associate creative director role at TBWA\Worldhealth that ranges between $150,000 and $225,000; a senior account director at Omnicom Health Group that pays between $125,000 and $200,000; a senior VP and group strategy director position for Omnicom Health that pays between $175,000 and $250,000; and a director of digital strategy post at Digitas Health that pays between $130,000 and $160,000.
And for industry execs who are in more troubled sectors, healthcare is rapidly becoming a safe haven. At the start of the pandemic, Omnicom Group CEO-Chairman John Wren said the holding company would reassign certain employees to growing areas like Omnicom Health Group to avoid as many layoffs and furloughs as possible, though the company declined further comment.
'A certain type of person'
But it isn't for everybody. Jacqueline Leak, a creative director at FCB Health in New York, who had previously worked as a creative at Ogilvy, BBDO and mcgarrybowen across categories such as packaged goods, food, beauty and fashion, says it is a tough transition. “It’s been an intense time. The biggest adjustment has been learning the language. Also, a high level of intelligence is required to navigate the world of science and bring that to life creatively,” says Leak, who currently works on cancer therapies.
And then there is the legally mandated necessity of listing all those nasty side effects. Jay Romano, president of pharma-focused Hybrid Healthcare Communications, says ads have to go through a rigorous approval process by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which might explain the sometimes hindrance of creativity.
“It takes a certain type of person who wants to do this,” says Jim Weiss, founder and CEO of healthcare marketing network W2O Group. “I love it. I eat, breathe, sleep the science and data behind it.”
Healthcare ads have been earning their day in the sun since The Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity introduced its first ever Health Lions in 2014. The first pharma award was handed out the next year: Publicis Groupe's Digitas took home the pharma Grand Prix for "Take it From a Fish," a disease education campaign featuring some talking (yes, talking) fish for AstraZeneca. In 2019, Cannes received 1,186 entries from 52 countries in its health track.
The introduction of such awards and the work that has emerged since has proven to the naysayers out there that there is room for creativity in healthcare and pharma, even amid a strict regulatory environment. FCB Health Network President-CEO Dana Maiman says she has seen an uptick in job applications from top talent as healthcare ads come into their own. “Most of the time, I find that once people come to the dark side, they don’t want to go back,” she says.