A Dose of Creativity: How Pharmaceutical Companies Are Changing the Way They Advertise

Rik Haslam, executive creative partner at Brandpie, gives analysis on the latest changes in pharmaceutical advertising

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The authority of the Chief Marketing Officer has undoubtedly expanded over the past several years — and with it, the pressure to produce results that are measurable and easily attributable to marketing initiatives.

Indeed, in the boardroom, executives might question why creativity is important at all when the company is still achieving more website conversions, improved market share, and real product differentiation.

Yet creativity in communications might matter more than most executives think.

In the book “The Case for Creativity,” author James Hurman assembled data over 30 years and conducted his own research into the link between creativity and commercial success. Crucially, he also analyzed business results from Cannes Lions’ Creative Marketer of the Year and found that the share price of 80 percent of winners was at its highest during the period leading up to winning the award. In other words, their value was at an all-time high when these brands were doing their most creative work.

And a quick glance at this year’s Lions winners suggests that pharma marketers might be paying attention.

Read more: How Pfizer is managing their digital transformation


The Cure for Stale Marketing

For years, pharmaceutical companies have attempted to combat concerns around inflated drug prices by highlighting the need to offset significant investments in R&D. That narrative is losing its legitimacy, however, amid an opioid epidemic that advocacy groups blame squarely on the industry’s largest players.

Agencies and industry marketers must now craft a different story and find new and interesting ways to connect with an apprehensive audience. To do that, they’ll have to get creative.

Fortunately, evidence suggests that a growing number of companies are attempting to overcome the sector’s endemic conservatism, and many are succeeding. It’s still early, but Cannes’ introduction of a specific category for pharma in 2014 does seem to have sparked a renaissance of sorts. While 2018 marked the second year in a row that Cannes Lions Health failed to produce a Grand Prix (the festival’s “big idea” award), the industry can be proud of the fact that a record of 16 pharma companies made the awards shortlist, and 10 took home Lions.

A glance at recent notable campaigns can yield some useful insights for industry marketers looking for their own wins:


1. Technology can enhance creativity.

Consumers reward companies that prioritize purpose over products in their communications. Pharma marketers must find ways to show audiences what really drives their work and demonstrate a genuine concern for public health and commitment to a cause that's greater than profits. Technology can help them do that.

For example, McCann Health worked with the Afghanistan Ministry of Health and deployed wearable technology to introduce the “Immunity Charm” — a bracelet for children that captures data around their vaccinations. The bracelet served as both an innovative communications vehicle and a practical solution. Plus, the campaign helped underscore the organization's commitment to kids, and that commitment anchors messaging on its website as well.


2. Thoughtful partnerships boost engagement.

To show the world the amazing work being done inside the labs of pharmaceutical companies, marketers might try looking outward.

In a beautiful experiential activation, Philips brought together a world-leading choirmaster, Gareth Malone; a choir of people with breathing difficulties; and its SimplyGo portable oxygen concentrator. After five days of working together, the group sang a choral arrangement of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The result was a touching piece of content that shows Philips celebrating the humanity of the people it helps while providing them with a joyful experience they'll remember forever.

After the campaign earned more than 15 million views and 650 million media impressions, device sales revenues rose by 14 percent across the quarter, reaching an all-time high.


3. Focus on craft

It's critical that marketers organize budgets and timelines to ensure that emphasis is placed on craft and production — elements that can elevate an ordinary idea to a great idea but are often an afterthought.

Area 23 is one of a new breed of healthcare creative agencies whose work stands alongside the very best consumer advertising. Its "Battle in the Bone" campaign targeting healthcare professionals used world-class illustration to promote Xofigo — a drug that helps patients whose prostate cancer has entered their bones.

The most impactful marketers understand that investments in creativity, though hard to quantify across quarterly cycles, can create significant competitive advantages over the longer term. In pharma, these investments must become more common. If they don't, effective communication will remain uncommon, and the industry's image will continue to suffer.


Rik Haslam is a creative leader who creates transformative stories and experiences for the world’s biggest brands. As executive creative partner at Brandpie, Rik helps brands find, define, and bring to life their purpose. An early pioneer of branded content and social media, Rik has created award-winning work for brands across multiple sectors including American Express, British Airways, HP, IBM, Nissan, Pfizer, and Virgin Media.