Opinion: A gray box warning for healthcare marketing
I read in a recent piece that Big Pharma, “once an advertising backwater, is now a big revenue bet for agencies and a hotspot for creatives … 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.”
The presumption was that converts to the pharma side were settling for "a shit ton of cash, the opportunity to provide for their family, less ego and less pressure to be ‘always on.’”
Let me come at this from a state of someone who has been in healthcare since 1993 (read: reality).
First, consumer advertising has long lived on the dictum of “come up with some really out-of-the-box ideas.” In healthcare marketing, you must stay within the box built by the FDA. End of discussion.
The FDA ensures that whatever you put in your mouth or body is safe and effective, and you and your doctor understand the risks of ingestion. Great pharma teams go to work inside that box to develop smart, targeted campaigns that connect with patients and introduce physicians to lifesaving therapies.
Second, consumer advertising (broad brushstroke here) is focused on trying to get you to buy this car or this vodka instead of that car or that vodka. In healthcare marketing, often the first and biggest competitor our clients face is the current standard of care: the status quo. Which means they face the daunting task of convincing a well-learned medical community to adopt new practices. Research shows that it can take up to 10 years for “large swaths of the medical community to stop referencing popular practices after their efficacy” has been proven outdated by more current clinical research findings.
Being a creative in pharma is extraordinarily hard, often deflating but incredibly fulfilling when you sell in great work.
Drugs that carry a risk of death have a black box warning. So, as a public service, consider this a gray box warning if you are a consumer creative considering making a change.
Ditch the superlatives
Every statement made in pharmaceutical advertising must be supported by clinical data. You cannot claim superiority over other products unless you have a clinically validated head-to-head study (and no one does). Every benefit statement must be “balanced” by a statement of risk, in the same font size.
No pharma ad begins its life as “bad”
Those of us in the business know that it is not the first idea the agency puts forth. Or maybe it was the first, but it has gone through several rounds of intense review by the client’s medical, legal and regulatory teams. As a result, it often has but a thread in common with the original, brilliant comp.
Walking on a beach doesn’t require data. Activities that we’d like to show patients doing can be deemed as demonstrating “quality of life.” If you don’t have quality-of-life data (not quite as rare as head-to-head data, but elusive), your characters’ movements will be tamed down. (For the record, we’ve never done an ad like that—but I understand where it comes from).
Get ready for a self-taught-PhD crash course
If you struggled through chemistry and biology, then you will have a tough time at a pharma agency. Even though we have medical staff—and they are brilliant—their job is to develop medical strategy, rather than do all the heavy lifting while you concept.
Your talent writing in different voices will get tested. You’ll need a tone and style that communicates forcefully and efficiently with clinicians. And then taking that same material and gracefully translate it to a fifth-grade reading level for patient materials.
Patients are waiting. Right. Now.
Many of the drugs we work on—in cancer and rare disease—are highly anticipated. Patients are waiting on the approval. The minute the FDA gives approval, all the required materials need to be available. Sometimes, the anticipated approval date gets moved up, which is wonderful for patients and grueling on agency timelines. Often the FDA makes changes to the drug’s label (that long eight-point-type treatise that details all critical information about the drug, the clinical trials that supported it, and the reported adverse events) right before approval, which means all the developed materials must be changed, redesigned, fact-checked and proofed before release. I have seen teams work 18-hour shifts for weeks approaching a launch, because patients are waiting.
You will always be on, so be ready. And be ready to learn every day.
Our pharmaceutical clients are passionate and demanding. Especially in oncology and rare disease, they are clear about wanting to change the world. They are looking beyond for catchy taglines or crazy characters. They want astounding ingenuity and creativity steeped in clinical accuracy. Our clients are looking for an agency that proactively solves critical business problems. Such problems include finding patients (many of whom may have fallen out of the healthcare system because there’s no known treatment) and helping them see the value in getting genetic testing or undergo what may be painful procedures or injections.
So, I encourage you to come to the dark side, if you think you have the chops, the stuff and the moxie.
It’s not nearly as dark as you have been led to believe.
It can be quite bright helping to shape the future.