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Live boulder, live louder

With the demise of Pepsi’s latest commercial shining a global  light on creativity, how can creative go from canned to Cannes -  and does it really matter anyway?


The recent controversy surrounding Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner advert has once again seen creativity hog the headlines. The fizzy drink ad fell flat, with its creative derided for taking a ‘tone-deaf approach to police brutality’ and trivialising political protest. Pepsi, who originally said the short film promoted ‘unity, peace and understanding’, subsequently canned it (pun intended) after a global backlash. Clearly, not every Pepsi refreshes the world. The episode encapsulates the fine margins of creativity; that tightrope between risk and reward. It’s a tightrope that pharmaceutical marketing treads every day. Too frequently, however, it tiptoes towards the safer side of the street. We all know why.

So, in the spirit of peaceful demonstration, let’s take a leaf out of the Pepsi playbook and find our own Kendall Jenner moment; a cause célèbre for healthcare communications. Here goes. In my twenty years of writing about pharma marketing, healthcare communications has been transformed by technology and practice - but the core narrative has barely shifted: such is pharma’s apparent reluctance to take creative risks that one wonders whether the industry places any value on creativity at all. The inference is enough to incite remonstration from the industry’s creative community - not least the communications agencies whose creative juices are often suppressed by client caution. But relax - I bring a Pepsi in peace. There’s no doubt that pharma embraces creativity - and there are countless examples of creative excellence that have contributed heavily towards brand value and commercial outcomes. But are they the exceptions rather than the rule? Is the industry creative enough or could it do more to push the margins and liberate the talents of its creative partners? My view is that Pepsi’s ill-fated commercial was actually on to something; it’s time for pharma to ‘live bolder, live louder’. Pick up a placard; let’s march.

The case for creativity

As the saying goes, creativity sells. But what does it actually mean? A 2013 Harvard Business Review article defined creativity as ‘divergent thinking; the ability to find unusual and nonobvious solutions to a problem’. It’s a definition that arguably falls short, failing to capture the punchline of good creativity - effectiveness. Rather than being creative simply for the sake of it, good creativity is about expressing a brand’s purpose and vision distinctively - in a way that engages audiences and influences their behaviours.

It’s not restricted to advertising. Nowadays, the creative opportunity exists with every customer interaction, whether that’s a KOL video, an e-detail, a poster presentation or a game. And everything else in between. But is multichannel communication blighting creativity? Possibly. ‘Creative’ is no longer discussed in the same way it used to be - it’s been rebranded as ‘content’ and largely commoditised. This commoditisation is driven by financial pressures and the need to communicate across multiple channels. However, critics argue that such diversification has eroded the purity of creativity. There is now, they claim, less value placed on the ‘idea’ - the central organising thought - and the creative work that’s expressed within it. Of course, creativity isn’t simply a light-bulb moment - it’s much more multidimensional, requiring a holistic understanding of customer, channel, medium and market. But treating content as a commodity, and taking a ‘matching luggage’ approach where all ‘content assets’ are boiled down to the lowest common denominator and made to look the same, undermines the value of creativity.

It’s a value that, across the board, is in danger of becoming lost. Two years ago, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) published the latest iteration of the Gunn Report - an acclaimed barometer of creativity and effectiveness. The title alone provides a succinct clue to current trends; it’s called Selling Creativity Short. In his 2015 foreword, Donald Gunn notes a regression since the last report in 2011: “As a champion of the selling power of superior creativity, one might (in 2011) have said: it doesn’t get any better than this…! It didn’t.” So what’s gone wrong?

Creativity sold short

Evidence has consistently shown that creative communications are among the most effective. In 2010, an 8-year IPA study of major brand advertising - from the likes of VW, Budweiser, Orange and Audi - claimed to demonstrate objectively that creatively awarded campaigns are 11 times more effective than campaigns that don’t win creative awards. Earlier studies indicate that more than 80% of awarded campaigns meet or exceed client objectives, and that there’s a direct correlation between creativity and effectiveness. The findings debunk the myth that the creative approach is the riskier approach.

But if, as the stats imply, creativity sells, we’re apparently selling it short. The 2015 Gunn Report reveals that budgetary investment in creativity has fallen sharply while a rise in the short-term evaluation of campaigns is having a destructive impact. The number of campaigns that are evaluated within six months or less is four times what it was a decade ago - fuelling a surge in short-term campaigns. Critics argue this is bad for brands, bad for effectiveness and bad for creativity. Peter Field, author of the Gunn Report, says: “Because creativity delivers business results most strongly over the long term, this ‘miscasting’ undermines the impact of creativity. Over these short timescales, non-awarded campaigns tend to outperform awarded campaigns - meaning again the benefit of investment in creativity will have been wasted.”

The growth of digital channels and the creeping maturity of cross-channel marketing - while often considered ‘creative’ - has not done as much to help the creative cause as we might think. “A growing percentage of creatively awarded campaigns are awarded for integrated multichannel ideas,” says Peter Field. “These appear typically to be designed to make greater use of digital channels to attempt to offset reduced budgets and to include strong activation to improve short-term results. They have some success at the latter objective, but not the former. However, despite considerable improvements to short-term effects, these campaigns remain less effective in the short term than non-awarded campaigns. They share the same long-term effectiveness advantages as campaigns awarded for single-channel creativity, so represent a step forward. But only if put to work over the long term.”

Creativity in pharma

How does this play out in pharma? We know the industry is highly regulated and that this breeds a lot of the nervousness at the root of the problem. “Nervousness and creativity don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand,” says Damien Parsonage, creative director, Blue Latitude Health. “A common current obstacle in pharma is the need to ‘resell’ the idea of creativity. It’s a delicious irony; we all know that creativity sells, yet we often find ourselves having to resell the notion that having strong ideas and concepts is worth the investment. In consumer environments, the arguments are understood - but in pharma, marketers often need to work harder to justify why they might try something and prove that it will work. Moreover, they have to convince those around them - colleagues and management at local, regional and global levels - to buy into the idea of being creative. It takes a brave marketer to stick their head above the parapet. However, by doing proper testing and in-situ optimisation work, you can start to build the case and bring people with you.”

One trait that commonly holds pharma back is its fixation on rational attributes. “Good creativity is the spearhead of strategy,” says Karam Sodhi, creative strategy Director, GHG. “It’s about creating a connection with your audience in a way that’s not only going to be relevant to them and the way they consume media, but that’s also going to be meaningful. Fundamentally, it should be meaningful to them as human beings. This is arguably where much creativity in pharma pulls up short. Marketers can sometimes focus so much on developing rational messages that the more emotive attributes get overlooked. Creativity is about engaging people in a humanistic way. Often, marketers can instinctively be blown away by a good creative idea, but then go on to deconstruct it in search of rational meaning. It’s like deconstructing a joke; by the end, the punchline loses its sting. To fixate on the rational is to miss the point - and indeed the opportunity; just because something doesn’t provide rational meaning doesn’t mean it’s not valuable and doesn’t make a powerful connection with an audience.

“Success really does boil down to being brave enough to see the creative vision through. Unfortunately, bravery is the exception rather than the rule.
Yet we only need to look outside our industry to see what’s possible. For example, some of the tech companies coming into health and wellness are doing really interesting things to connect people in the healthcare space. If we truly care about healthcare audiences, we need to be braver in how we flex our stories - and our brands. Creativity should be a tool to tell your story as diversely and interestingly as possible. We shouldn’t shy away from exploring new ways of doing it.”

Creative measures

How can companies become braver in their creative choices? One answer is through testing, which enables marketers to take measured risks. “Testing allows us to demonstrate the value of creativity to people entrenched in the comfort zone of rational, scientific arguments,” says Damien Parsonage. “It can provide the data, the evidence and the confidence to be more adventurous. But it’s important to be clear about what you’re testing; there’s a huge difference between measuring direct response and long-term brand building. The Gunn Report rightly points out that quarterly measurement of ROI can be an enemy of creativity - but there are distinct techniques to test and measure short-term response and long-term brand perception. The skill is to do both. Test the stuff you can test. Measure, identify, iterate. And then test again. Measurement and optimisation are the keys to success. It’s the only way we can demonstrate the value of creativity and move the needle of creative innovation.”

Innovation with metrics may yet become the catalyst that reinstates the value of creativity in pharmaceutical marketing. But it won’t be easy; establishing ROI is far harder in pharma than in consumer. Healthcare is complex. Following the trail of success and then correlating it to a marketing message is difficult. With so much diverse activity going on, it’s hard to determine the power of an ‘idea’. However, as pharma’s metrics become more sophisticated and the evidence is reinforced, the industry will begin to place greater value on creativity once more.

Brave new world

So where to now? As competition intensifies and companies do all they can to drive brand value, creativity can play a major part in engaging and influencing audiences. The industry cannot afford to wait for metrics to become more sophisticated and, in the process, squander the power of creativity. It’s time to be brave. Despite all the criticism, Pepsi was right; ‘live bolder, live louder’. If we’re to reinstate the lost value of creativity, that’s surely a message around which we can all unite. Let’s crack open a Cannes.

Article by
Chris Ross

is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry

10th July 2017

Article by
Chris Ross

is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry

10th July 2017

From: Marketing



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