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Creativity in storytelling: why pharma must invest more in creativity

Chris Ross explores the value, the art and the much-rumoured death of creativity

Dec PME cover

If pharmaceutical marketers were a political party, it’s likely that their election manifesto would pledge greater investment in creativity.

It sounds like a vote winner. There’s a growing suspicion that pharma’s investment in ‘brand’ is declining, with modern-day powerhouses like data, tech and market access all stealing budget and dominating strategic thinking.

It’s a tough one to prove; mainstream media still loves the headline that pharma spends more on promotion than R&D, but evidence suggests that, across the industry, marketing teams are getting smaller and brand budgets are shrinking. The irony is sharp: the reduction in marketing resource places even greater emphasis on the need for creativity. The question is: is pharma being creative enough?

Earlier this year, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) hosted an all-sector debate entitled ‘Is Creativity Dead?’, inviting a range of speakers to discuss how AI, bots and machine learning are shaping ‘the future of creativity’ and even ‘the future of humanity’ itself. It’s a familiar refrain; I first wrote about the ‘death of creativity’ (in pharma) more than twenty years ago, and critics blasted me for peddling old arguments. It seems rumours of its death have been greatly exaggerated... for decades.

The value of creativity

Another well-worn discussion is around the ‘value of creativity’. According to a 2017 IBM study, CEOs say creativity is the most important driver of future business success. It has a huge influence on current performance too, with Forrester research showing that 82% of executives think creativity has helped their companies increase revenue and grow market share.

However, in the ROI era, creativity’s contribution to brand value is forever being evaluated – and it’s historically proved difficult to measure results. But data is steadily emerging.A 2017/18 study of TV commercials in the US and UK showed that over 40% of all TV ad spend is unlikely to contribute to long-term growth.

However, it concluded, significantly, that the most effective creative campaigns worked best because they generated ‘greater emotional response and established memory structures that enabled fast and reliable brand recognition’. That’s the power of brand and the job of creativity, and it proves that companies that reduce their investment in it do so at their peril.

In the consumer space, the value of creativity always comes under the microscope at Christmas, when the deluge of festive commercials stimulates much debate about whether the investment is worth it. At face value, the jury is out.

For example, John Lewis reportedly spent £7m on its Elton John-themed Christmas ad in 2018 only to later announce a 45% fall in annual profits. I guess that’s why they call it the blues. However, the dip in fortune, clearly attributable to High Street challenges rather than creative prowess, hasn’t stopped the retailer investing a similar
sum on ‘Excitable Edgar’.

Why? Because John Lewis says its Christmas ads ‘generally deliver 20 times the return’ on its original spend at the most crucial time of the year. Fundamentally, creativity isn’t immune to fluctuating market conditions, but it provides a winter fuel that helps the biggest brands power through. How they wish it could be Christmas every day.

IPA studies indicate that creativity can increase ROI by a multiplier of ten – a huge stimulant for brand value. Cannes Lions goes even further, believing ‘creativity is the business growth engine’ and highlighting it as one of eight themes for its 2020 Awards. It’s no surprise that, given its transformative powers, companies continue to pine for the ‘magic sauce’ of creative communications.

Guy Vickerstaff, Chair of IPA Scotland, said: “For all the data, for all the latest tech, for all the influencers and all the noise, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the substance of our business. The currency that our clients look to us for to transform their businesses, the currency that grabs consumers’ ever-decreasing attention, and the currency that attracts the brightest of minds into our business. And that is, of course, creativity.”

Defining creativity

So what exactly do we mean by ‘creativity’, and how does pharma’s use of it stack up? Fundamentally, there’s a big difference between commercial creativity and that associated with other artistry. Pharma creativity isn’t about hanging art on a wall – and it doesn’t have the same mandate for originality that defines great musicians, artists and visionaries. In healthcare, it’s all about measured disruption.

“Commercial creativity is about combining familiar elements in an unfamiliar way, to grab attention, make a point or influence a change in behaviour,” said Justin Holloway, Head of Client Strategy, Communications Europe, Syneos Health.

“The sweet spot comes from combining known elements in novel ways so that customers see an old world in a new light. Psychology suggests that this is where humans feel most comfortable. As a species, we don’t like radical change; if creativity is too original or too disruptive, it’s almost more than we can take. ‘Minor disruption’ offers the face of familiarity. That’s certainly the case in pharma, where regulations and the gravity of health and science rightfully limit our scope for radical expression. But if we get it right, we can really make a difference.”

Justin, who spent over thirty years in consumer advertising before moving into healthcare, says the desire for creativity transcends all industries. “The appetite for creative advantage is the same in pharma as it is in consumer. Clients want and value creativity; the primary purpose of almost every RFP is to find a creative solution. Everyone is looking for the breakthrough thought, insight or expression that will attract audiences and get them to engage with stuff that they wouldn’t otherwise make the time for. The quest for creative edge, intangible and indefinable though it may be, is everywhere.”

Kim Hughes, Executive Creative Director, OPEN Health Patient & Brand Communications, said creativity in healthcare communications is all about storytelling. “Our job is to change minds and behaviours, and we only do that if we tell meaningful stories that engage and matter to the viewer,” says Kim.

“Ultimately, content is king, but it’s creativity that wraps that content up into something that’s timely, compelling and relevant. However, we live in a world where there’s now so much content, in every form, and brands have to fight for their message to be heard.

“Creativity is the key to achieving it, but somehow, with advances in technology changing the game, we’ve allowed ‘channel’ to become all- important. It misses the point. Just because you put content on a website or in a podcast doesn’t necessarily mean that your message will be engaged with; channel is just one element of the process. Creativity and storytelling is about how you adapt your content to suit audiences and channels.”

The nature of communications has certainly changed in recent years. In the past, said Kim, advertising told emotive stories. “The great TV commercials of our time were entertaining, compelling and interesting. They made you feel something new and inspired emotional buy-in. Today, digital has given us a great opportunity to deliver content in exciting ways that reflect audiences’ personal preferences, but we must be careful we don’t lose the creative component that captures hearts and minds.

"In a world of too much information, creativity is becoming more important but, on occasions, less valued. Pharma desperately wants to value it, but it can sometimes get lost among all the other filters that need to be applied. However, in a world of noise, creativity is what can make you heard.”

Courage in simplicity

So how can pharma improve its creative communications? One suggestion is to keep it simple; less is more. “One of the biggest challenges marketers face is around how much of your message do you actually try to communicate,” said Justin.

“We’re living in an era where everyone, particularly HCPs, is time poor. It’s the main dynamic shaping our audiences and it’s driving the need for a new age of creativity in pharma. In a world of ‘too little time’, we need to be creative to grab attention, but we also need to be disciplined and realistic in terms of how much of our message customers will be able to engage with.

“People often say that the best creative is brave; well, one element of that bravery is about not trying to say too much. Creativity is a two- way street; it leaves room for the audience’s interpretation and creates space for the recipients to add their own story. That requires courage, particularly in pharma where there’s a temptation to communicate all our data and tell audiences everything we want them to know.

“The concept of the single-minded proposition is well-established in the consumer industry, but it often creates discomfort in pharma. It’s understandable; science is complex and multifactorial. However, the best creative communications really are that simple. It’s about working out the piece that really matters and, providing your single-minded proposition can tell a broader, wider story, being prepared to leave it at that. Great creativity is the art of abbreviation.”

Creativity driving loyalty

So does creativity boost brand value?

“Of course,” said Kim. “For proof, we only need look to ourselves. Fundamentally, whether doctor, patient, creative director or writer, we’re all consumers, and we all buy brands. We do it because we’ve made emotional connections with brands we have come to value and trust. That’s what branding is all about and the same rules apply in healthcare.”

“It’s why, as marketing budgets become tighter, the most successful companies will be those who maintain their investment in creativity and branding.

In the rush to get messages to market, we must not allow creativity to become an afterthought. Healthcare communication is more than facts, figures or delivery channels; it must be engaging, relevant and emotive. And creativity is the bow that holds everything together.”

Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

3rd December 2019

Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

3rd December 2019

From: Marketing

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