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Is creativity in quarantine?

Chris Ross explores the value of creativity – and how to realise it

As the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) warns of a lockdown in creative effectiveness, the distancing between pharma and other industries when it comes to creativity has closed altogether.

Creativity is a key ingredient for success as we work our way through the pandemic. But the question for brands is this: does creativity translate into commercial value?

Valuing creativity

It’s long been argued that the value of creativity cannot be measured in pounds and pence. However, in recent years, models to help quantify the links between creativity and business performance have advanced.

According to McKinsey – that, in 2017, developed an index to benchmark creativity based on awarded work at the Cannes Lions Festival – creative leaders outperform their peers on three key financial measures: organic revenue growth, total shareholder returns and Net Enterprise Value.

Better still, the business consulting giant says that ‘companies that harness creativity and data in tandem have growth rates twice as high as companies that don’t’.

If you think that sounds encouraging, hold the phone: creative experts paint a more worrying trend. In 2011, the IPA published a study that showed that – across all sectors – creatively awarded campaigns are seven times more effective than non-awarded ones in terms of market share growth per point of excess share of voice (ESOV). And they are almost 16 times more likely to bring major profitability growth.

That advantage has slowly disappeared. By 2014, IPA’s follow-up report – Selling Creativity Short – revealed that the efficiency multiplier of creatively awarded work had halved and ESOV for those same campaigns had fallen into negative territory.

The reason? Reduced investment in creativity (due to global recession) and an increase in short-term campaigns – undermining the long- term impact of creatively-awarded campaigns.

According to the report, creativity delivers business results most strongly over the long term – but over short-term timescales, non-awarded campaigns outperform awarded, meaning investment in creativity is wasted.

Today, that trend is continuing – and, according to the IPA, the ongoing shift to short- term activation-focused creativity is having a catastrophic effect. The clue is in the title of its latest study: ‘The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness’.

Published in June 2019, the report describes a ‘misuse of creativity’, a collapse in effectiveness of creatively awarded campaigns and an erosion of creative advantage. Alarmingly, it reports a strong belief among CMOs that ‘creativity is now irrelevant in the data-driven age’.

But the pandemic has shifted the dial. If necessity is the mother of invention, COVID-19 has thrust creativity into the spotlight and underlined its strategic importance. Companies have quickly learned that creativity can be the difference between success and failure.

At the end of March, a 12-market Edelman study into the role brands were expected to play during the pandemic highlighted the ‘power of brands’ to inform, educate and connect audiences – and their ability to provide solutions to societal challenges.

In response, trusted brands have stepped up – and creativity has played a huge role in shaping the solutions. As we battle to redefine our place in a surreal world, there’s a dawning recognition that – as a former Ogilvy exec put it – ‘it’s creativity that saves us’. The creative fightback is already underway.

Pharma creative

So how is pharma faring? Well, in an era where other industries are accused of undervaluing and underinvesting in creativity, pharma might just be bucking the trend. Regulation has meant that the sector has long had a reputation for being creatively cautious, but there are signs that pharma is no longer behind the curve.

According to many across the industry, the pandemic has liberated a speed and agility in creative decision-making that’s brought about ‘five years of innovation in just five months’. What’s more, pharma’s creative approach is beginning to attract attention from other industries, rather than the other way around.

“For years it’s been one-way traffic – with pharma looking across at B2C and B2B to observe the exciting stuff going on,” said James Mayfield, Creative Director, Purple Agency. “But now it’s really opened up. We’re starting to have really interesting conversations with B2B clients about what we’re doing in pharma.

"They’re seeing joined- up thinking in how creative projects are being developed and executed – and companies building on strategic insight to deliver creative concepts that are driving meaningful change. It’s really exciting.”

Defining and exploiting creativity

The word ‘creativity’ is broad, ambiguous and subjective. This may, in part, be one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to quantify its value. So how should we define creativity – and how can pharma companies organise themselves to make the most of the opportunity?

“Creativity is the ‘unfair’ advantage in getting your point across,” said Andrew Gardner, Chief Strategy Officer, Havas Lynx Group. “Done well, it helps brands to get noticed, simplifies the complex, aids understanding and provides the greatest chance of being remembered.

"Great healthcare marketing is about getting the right blend of substance behind that creativity. This never goes away. However, we are seeing more and more functions across client organisations, access, medical, business strategy, turning to us for an extra advantage too.”

Collaboration and connectivity are key. “Creativity is about having the wherewithal to think broadly and dynamically at every stage of the process,” said James Mayfield. “To work, it must be embedded in a business, with everyone creatively charged to think literally and laterally about the opportunities that come through the door.”

“It’s not about pretty pictures – it’s about creativity in its broadest sense. That requires cross-pollination across businesses and brands; mobilising skilled, collaborative and multi-faceted teams that bring diversity and difference to thinking – and lining everything up with customer needs to develop creative concepts that activate change. In the past, there’s been a tendency from some clients to rush for a solution rather than taking a more strategic approach.

"Thankfully, that’s getting better. Great work isn’t about being creative for the sake of it, jumping on the latest technology, or trying to be innovative because you think it might help you look good or win awards. No, the best work doesn’t start with the tactic, it starts with strategic insight.

"That means being customer-focused, understanding their needs and motivations, and empowering everyone – from planning and insight to copywriting, experience art direction and strategy – to join the dots to develop stand-out campaigns.”

Andrew Gardner agreed: “The most successful brand teams are always the ones that work seamlessly with the agency. Delivering something creative means that you understand the target almost better than they know themselves, so it all starts with investment in proper qualitative insights.

"Through the creative process one needs to recognise that ‘surprise and delight’ does not come from a formula, and nascent ideas need nurturing and protection as they evolve with medical, legal and regulatory scrutiny, let alone survive pre-testing.

“And when they’re released, we need to make sure the idea is working in the way it was intended and that it is delivering the anticipated change. You manage what you measure, and creativity is no different.”

Creativity and customer obsession

According to Peter Henshaw, Managing Director, Digital, Mednet Group, insight-driven creativity is one of the most powerful competitive advantages a business can have.

“Too often, creativity in pharma is viewed as something self-indulgent or artistic. The most successful companies perceive creativity to be strategic, meaningful and valuable – and their work is rooted in a deep understanding of how to deliver the right message when it’s most useful.

“To win over physicians’ eyes and ears, it’s no longer enough to focus on the big idea. Digital consumers require a collection of targeted ideas, delivered via the multiple platforms they use in practice every day. As agency leaders, we shouldn’t lose sight of how to translate ideas into engagement. Often, there’s a big disconnect.”

Progress, said Peter, might require approaching things slightly differently. “We always begin by analysing data, performance and observing interaction behaviour, to understand the digital experience our audience expects. We use that to establish a series of user experience principles, that drive a collection of targeted messages and unified ideas.

"We are laser focused on meeting – and exceeding – the digital expectations of highly empowered physicians at every point of contact. It’s the reverse of the traditional process – but it means our campaigns come from the right place. Start with the customer and work backwards.”

Creative disruption

Certainly, digital innovation has extended the playing field of creative opportunity. But is evolution in the digital landscape forcing companies to rethink their entire approach to creativity? Apparently not.

“The obvious superficial changes are in longer, more digitally oriented lists of assets to work up, but I don’t think this has any impact whatsoever on our fundamental understanding of creativity,” said Ian Ray, Associate Creative Director, Pegasus (an Ashfield company, part of UDG Healthcare).

“People and creativity have evolved over millennia and it would take more than a few decades of digital innovation to change that very human urge to capture someone’s attention and make a connection.”

However, as the IPA reports highlight, the immediacy of digital engagement is quietly fuelling an increase in short-term creative campaigns where customer activation is a primary purpose. This can nullify the long-term benefits of creative excellence.

“We’re seeing increasing sophistication in starting conversations, conversions and immediate changes in behaviour, but – as obvious as it is to say – the risk is that you’re chasing this year’s KPIs at the expense of the bigger brand picture,” said Ian. “That should be obvious, but it’s easily forgotten – particularly in a climate of rapidly changing plans. Playing the strategic long game isn’t always easy, but the benefits are pretty self-evident.”

Nevertheless, the growth of digital channels – and pharma’s increased willingness to exploit them – is transforming the creative opportunity.

“By its very nature, digital provides an infinite canvas on which to play,” said Andrew Gardner. “Digital transformation has been imposed on all of us over the last nine months and HCPs are no different. From our research we are already seeing lasting changes to channel usage, daily practice and team interactions as a result of the pandemic.

"This acceleration of the drift into digital is long overdue but the creative opportunities it produces are fantastic. If one considers all of the areas to unlock brand growth across the customer experience, frequently it is innovation and inventive services that make the difference.

"Being creative, not least in digital, means doing something unexpected, while being relevant and meaningful to the customer. It is the bravest brands that will benefit the most.”

And so to the killer question: can creativity boost brand value? The answer, in an evidence- hungry world that’s now drowning in data points, still relies on a gut feeling. We struggle to prove it, but at a time when innovation keeps coming to our rescue, we instinctively know that creativity is a precious commodity.

“Proving value is the classic challenge to creativity,” said Ian Ray, “not least because the evidence is prone to ‘creative interpretation’. People like James Herman have made a more persuasive commercial case for creativity than I could here.

"But a more personal take on health is that – in an age when the sector is under unprecedented public scrutiny – memorable creative humanises brands, creating instant, empathetic connections at a time when many of us are feeling isolated.”

Creative collaboration

Fundamentally, the value of strategic creative won’t be found in quarantine. Creativity cannot exist in isolation – it requires collaboration, cross-pollination, diversity and difference.


Most of all, it requires a deep understanding of customer behaviours and the ability to connect with them at work and at play. Because if communications are going to change behaviours, creativity must be there at every touchpoint.

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

12th November 2020

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

12th November 2020

From: Marketing

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