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Why don’t big pharma brands win creative awards?

There’s a striking lack of correlation between commercial and creative success

Creative awards

There are more creative award shows than ever before. Creative standards in pharma advertising have, by general consent, never been higher. But the awards are not going to the brands that attract the big advertising budgets.

Compare the world's top 100 pharma brands with the top 100 winners in the past year's pharmaceutical/healthcare creative award shows.

Only 2% of the top creative awards went to the world's leading brands.

The lack of correlation between commercial and creative success is striking. Isn't advertising supposed to create and sustain successful brands? Shouldn't the biggest brands have the benefit of the most creative campaigns?

We asked some senior people in pharma companies and agencies for their opinions about this paradox. To encourage candour, we assured them of anonymity. Below are some of their responses.

Big brands don't need creativity to succeed
“My brand is not built on advertising but on clinical evidence and sales effort.” - Marketing Manager

There is ample evidence from consumer advertising that creatively-awarded brands perform better than brands that don't win awards. The most effective campaigns have little rational content but are based on powerful, emotion-based brand reminders. These lessons have not filtered through to pharma.

In our world people seem unconvinced about the link between creativity and effectiveness. They point out that many big brands do very well despite uninspired campaigns. That may be true. But what could we achieve if we married the best clinical performance with the best creative ideas?

Global branding is the enemy of creativity
“I'd love to do a more creative campaign but my hands are tied by Global.” - UK National Manager, top five pharma company

“Global branding produces vanilla concepts to suit all markets, reduced to the lowest common denominator to cause the least offence.” - Agency CEO

Global branding started out by focusing on brand identity, to ensure that the look and feel of the brand was the same in all markets. But the principle has spread to brand campaigns.

The goal of global branding is consistency and uniformity, while the aim of creativity is to be different and stand out. The best of both worlds, surely, is to combine globalised branding with localised campaigns. But how often is this implemented?

Creativity works best for challenger brands, not leaders
“A good campaign can build the profile of a new brand, but once it is established the job is done.” - Sales & Marketing Director

Great campaigns have given many new brands a leg-up to fame and fortune. Creativity is also required to maintain successful brands. When Apple became the world's most successful company, it didn't stop advertising; it spent even more.

Many agencies believe that smaller companies and brands give them more creative freedom. In fact some agencies target non-mainstream companies with the express intention of garnering awards.

Pharma is different from consumer advertising
“What works for soap powder doesn't work for a monoclonal antibody. Doctors make decisions based on facts, not gimmicks.” - International Brand Manager

There is a widespread belief that the rules which govern other business sectors do not apply to pharma.

This notion is not borne out by facts. Healthcare decision makers, like the rest of us, are subject to the laws and flaws of human behaviour. Their decisions are influenced by non-rational factors and biases, which advertisers can leverage if they are given the opportunity.

Big pharma decision-making discourages creativity
“The approval process makes it harder than ever to get good work through.” - Creative Director

“People are frightened of making a claim that attracts a complaint or a decision that their managers frown upon. Hence you get decision by committee.” - Agency Planning Director

Creativity means taking risks, and Big Pharma is risk averse. Creativity is difficult to define and quantify, and marketers are nervous about anything they can't see, touch and measure.

Market research doesn't help because it applies in vitro methodology to in vivo behaviour. Concept testing may highlight communication problems but it won't identify the most creative idea.

Awards are going to causes, not campaigns
“We have to fish where the fish are. Most awards today are won by issue-driven entries, not brand campaigns.” - Executive Creative Director

Agencies have always done pro bono work, partly to exercise their creative chops and partly because they want to do some good as well as shift goods.

As the figure above shows, the majority of awards are going to entries that fall under the categories of disease awareness, health education or social issues. So have ad agencies grown a conscience? Or is altruism the new self-interest?

Whatever the motivation, it raises the question: how can agencies run a business if they are doing their best work for next to nothing?

An agency spokesperson explained: “Our agency has two types of accounts. With type A accounts, the clients trust us and give us creative freedom. With type B accounts we do exactly what the client says and send them the invoice. Type A accounts win awards, type B accounts pay the bills.”

Creative awards are irrelevant to real-world marketing
“Ad agencies live in a make believe world. I work in the real world.” - Global Brand Manager

“There are two types of creativity: the type that generates sales and the type that wins awards. I prefer the first.” - Marketing Manager

Many pharma companies maintain an arms-length relationship with agencies. Some deter their employees from attending award ceremonies, which devalues their view of awards.

Some agencies have made the decision to sidestep awards judged by customers in favour of those judged by their peers. This reinforces the perception that agencies are more interested in self-promotion than supporting brands.

Does it matter?
The gulf between brand advertising and creative awards is symptomatic of a growing distance between agencies and their clients.

Our agency is part of the second most creatively awarded network in the world, so we fully support the role of awards. But we are witnessing a disconnect between our core competency (creativity) and our core clients (big pharma companies).

A weaker relationship between pharma companies and agencies means that accounts come up for pitch more frequently and fewer agencies are on long-term contracts or retainers.

Both parties are losing out from this lack of collaboration. Big brands are not utilising the power of emotional engagement. Agencies are not offering their creative skills to their bill-paying clients.

How do we fix the problem?
Pharma marketers could learn from other business sectors about how to get maximum value from advertising. They need to revise their attitude to risk, from avoiding failure to pursuing success. They should treat agencies as business partners, which means learning to trust them.

Agencies need to earn that trust by demonstrating a better understanding of client strategy. We need to demonstrate the benefits of creativity in terms that clients will accept. We have to shift our focus to long-term brand growth. Above all, we need to dispel the impression that we are gong-hunters in pursuit of awards.

Bridging the trust gap is vital to restore a healthy relationship. Who's ready for the challenge?

Article by
Reg Manser

is chief creative officer, Life Healthcare Communications, a member of the Indigenus Network

8th March 2016

Article by
Reg Manser

is chief creative officer, Life Healthcare Communications, a member of the Indigenus Network

8th March 2016

From: Marketing

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