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Science doesn’t sell

Healthcare communications aren’t lacking in clinical data - what they need is a dose of advertising ideals

inVentiv Health Advertising Nick Bartlett Richard Lieberman‘You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.’

Those were the words of Bill Bernbach, one of the most influential names in advertising. In 1949, he founded DDB with Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane. Throughout the decades that followed, they created pioneering work for the likes of VW and Avis - work that changed the rules of the game.

Bernbach’s philosophy was simple: ‘properly practiced creativity’ is the business of persuasion. Make no mistake - that’s the definition of advertising.

Fast-forward to 2016, and too many agencies - especially those specialising in healthcare - seem content to confuse their central purpose: applying creativity to change the way people think, act and feel.

When did ‘advertising’ become such a dirty word?
How did the principles that once made it great (and dare we say glamorous) get so bogged down by buzzwords, platforms, technologies and ‘new media’?

Crucially: why do healthcare communications frequently forget those that they hope to influence and reach?

Great advertising brings creativity and innovation to the task of solving a defined problem

Healthcare is all about people - people who need life-changing therapies and people who provide them. Their distinctions are smaller than their commonalities. Patients, payers, physicians: they’re all wonderful, vulnerable human beings - each with their own hopes, dreams and fears.

Do people really care about the science behind life-changing therapies? Not unless it answers a complex question: “What’s in it for me?” That’s the role of effective advertising.

Pick any of the most iconic advertising campaigns in the industry’s history, from Avis’ We try harder to Apple’s 1984 and Sport England’s This Girl Can, and the power of ideas, stories and experiences becomes clear.

The best ideas aren’t just big: they’re simple, smart, bold, provocative, intelligent, elastic, sharable, inclusive, contextual, human. They use insight and impact to elicit an emotional response.

The best stories don’t just communicate messages: they reflect our realities back to us in interesting, surprising, accessible, meaningful ways. They educate, inform, entertain and engage. They connect things to make us feel something.

The best experiences aren’t just enduring: they’re personal. They show us that we’re counted, represented, special, important, understood. They touch and move us on an individual level. Science isn’t interesting in isolation. The mode of action; the clinical data; the product innovation: they’re all important. But they’re secondary to the facts that matter more: the patient outcome; the unmet need; the physicians’ objectives.

The best stories educate, inform, entertain and engage - they make us feel something

Great advertising works for many reasons. It uncovers a single-minded truth about a client’s business proposition or intended market - and then expresses it in ways people can’t ignore. It integrates the right tools, techniques and placements to render the client’s message memorably convincing. It brings creativity and innovation to the task of solving a defined problem - for both the client and its customers. It performs against agreed expectations to produce measurable results - for both the client and the agency.

Above all: it recognises that people’s decision-making processes are driven not by logic, but emotion. Neuroscience is even starting to prove it. ‘The somatic marker hypothesis provides a systems-level neuroanatomical and cognitive framework for decision-making and the influence on it by emotion. The key idea of this hypothesis is that decision-making is a process that is influenced by marker signals that arise in bioregulatory processes, including those that express themselves in emotions and feelings.’ With this sort of language we rest our case. Healthcare communications have a problem: everything must be ‘safe’.

The products, the messaging, the strategy, the approach. That preoccupation stifles what healthcare communications need most: the freedom to exercise creativity - ‘properly practiced’. Predictably, it’s related to perceptions of risk.In recent years, our industry has undergone huge change. Recessionary thinking still lingers. Digital has focused clients on ROI. Risk aversion has taken hold. Many clients and agencies now prefer to say the same things, prefer to fit in. But this mentality runs counter to what one commissions the other to achieve.

Sometimes, our biggest risk is in trying not taking one at all.

Does science sell? In the absence of an emotive idea, story and experience, we’d argue ‘no’. Mr Bernbach had it nailed:
‘The real giants have always been poets, men who jumped from facts into the realm of imagination and ideas.’

Are we ready to stand on their shoulders? You bet.

  1. Source: Emotion, Decision Making and the Orbitofrontal Cortex –

inVentiv Health Advertising is a full-service advertising agency headed up by Nick Bartlett (European managing director) and Richard Lieberman (executive creative director). They’re always happy to talk about using emotion to sell science. Contact them on 0207 632 1800, or email

25th April 2016



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Syneos Health®

+44 (0) 207 632 1800

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