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How to Make Pharma Ads That Won't Give Consumers a Headache

McCann's Jeremy Perrott has the prescription

Perrott says he sees a lot of visual clichés and "easy-way-out solutions" in healthcare ads. Lilly Perrott

Jeremy Perrott insists that medical and pharmaceutical creative work can be just as sexy as any other form of advertising—perhaps even more so. And if anyone would know, it's Perrott.

For the past eight years, the Aussie native has served as global chief creative officer of McCann Health. In that time, he has built the New York-based Interpublic Group network into one of the most-awarded players in its field, creating notable work for AstraZeneca, Nestlé, Pfizer and many others. He has also helped judge some of the industry's most prestigious awards, and just last week was named chair of the Clio Health Awards' Design, Film, Out of Home and Print Jury. He was also chairman of judges at Cannes Lions Health 2014. Here, he reflects on his favorite work and the biggest mistakes made by those who create healthcare advertising.

Adweek: So, why is pharma advertising sexy? 
Jeremy Perrott: For a long time, the medical and pharma communications industry produced material that just wasn't understood, or given the attention it deserved. It wasn't seen to be sexy. Perhaps those working in it didn't know how to produce work that made a real creative impact, or even wanted to. Perhaps clients didn't think their products could be articulated or sold the same way as their consumer cousins. Who knows? Today, we have some of the world's most awarded creative people working with pharma and medical clients, producing mold-breaking innovative solutions for an industry bursting with real, life-saving products. The smartest talent from all over the world is focusing on producing intelligent content and engagement material. You tell me, who's sexy now?

Can you give us an example? 
A somewhat small client of ours [Singapore Red Cross]. … The office handling it, also small, created a massive solution that became the most-awarded digital campaign in Asia.

The campaign's request was to have people give blood. To accomplish this, a cultural shift in attitude toward giving blood—not just to strangers, but in general—had to be addressed. Youth had to be the primary audience to make this generational change that would impact this life-saving need.

Neither conventional media nor the usual approach was working, and it wasn't because of lack of funds. Instead, social media—Facebook, Twitter and digital engagement—created the voice and movement that opened the hearts of the generation that communicates 24/7. In essence, your blood type went on your Facebook page. Suddenly, you realize which of your friends, acquaintances and friends' friends have the same blood type. Your Facebook page tells all. You post a message saying that a friend needs blood. All of your friends reply, wanting to help. Via an app, a map shows the nearest clinic for anyone who replies that they want to give blood. Simple, social and community-driven. Proof, despite no real media money, that you can move people to do amazing things once you inform, connect and engage.

What are the most common, eye-rolling mistakes in healthcare ads?
I see a lot of dross. A lot of laziness, folding or easy-way-out solutions. But what really makes my eyes water is the constant use of visual clichés. To me they are just visual metaphors and an excuse for lame ideas.

You're chairing a Clio Health jury this year. Any expectations about what you'll see, or what you want to see?
This is the time those chosen to judge put their reputations on the line and show the industry what brilliance should look like. I will say to the jurors, the work we select, the decisions we make, will impact industry standards and future talent. Do we have the guts to not only be truthful about the work but strong enough to make selections based on what really made us sit up and take notice?

What are the greatest challenges for healthcare clients and their agencies?
The biggest challenge is to support the value and importance of creativity. There are ways to be smart about production costs, for instance, but finding cheaper ways to do business, to get more out of suppliers, to economize on process should not compromise the effectiveness that great creativity provides.

In the end, it's the creative talent that is relied upon to articulate the complex messages and precise facts, so that both the consumer and the industry can be moved, inspired and motivated to purchase or request the client's product, service and brands.

If we do not value exceptional talent, we will drive the best talent out of the industry and mediocrity will prevail. And that is a very serious price to pay.

This story first appeared in the March 28 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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