Healthcare agency creatives are the first to admit that their
agencies are not exactly a hotbed of creativity and originality. ’The
advertising industry has pooh-poohed a lot of healthcare ads and quite
In comparison with consumer advertising, we were doing crap, but
standards are improving,’ is one creative director’s honest
Some healthcare creatives point to the regulatory environment as an
obstacle to producing truly innovative work. On top of the usual
advertising codes of practice, healthcare ads are subject to an extra
layer of rules set by the Association of British Pharmaceutical
The ABPI rules ban the use of superlatives and comparative advertising,
among other things, and require that all claims in ads are backed up by
research papers. The rules present a real challenge for copywriters and
all too often mean rather dull headlines. But many creative directors
argue that the regulations are an excuse for some creatives not to do
The client is also often blamed for stifling creativity. Whether
healthcare clients are any more difficult to please than consumer
clients is debatable, but they are generally more conservative. For good
reason. ’In the past, a lot of clients were medical people, so there’s a
greater degree of conservatism and quite rightly so. If mis-prescribed,
drugs can kill,’ says Martyn Walsh, European creative director at
Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare Connection.
Many clients forget that the target audience, the medical profession,
comprises ordinary consumers and try to impress them with science.
’There’s a tendency among some clients to want to make it a high
science, what we call the flying molecule school of advertising. But
they should be focusing on the benefit to the doctor, to the patient, to
the consumer,’ points out Phil Cox, creative director of Lane Earl &
The scientific background of most clients coincides with a dearth of
marketing skills. Many product managers are ex-sales reps, and agency
creatives complain that few understand advertising concepts or the role
of advertising in the promotional mix.
’In the healthcare world, we’re often dealing with marketing people who
have a very scientific background and take a very logical approach to
advertising. They tend to rely heavily on research and not much on gut
feel,’ says Geoff Leavold, creative director of Leavold Pollard
The complaint that most clients are loath to take a flyer and run with
an ad that doesn’t do well in research is voiced by many healthcare
agency creatives. Alex Perryman, creative director of Brader Perryman,
calls for a different approach.’Quite often people use concept research
to test whether a brief was right in the first place. We should be
testing the best execution of that brief, not whether it was right to
start with,’ she says.
The advice to do less research into the idea is especially pertinent as
doctors come over all conservative when asked for their professional
opinions on research. They tend to respond best to the sort of ad that
they’re used to seeing and shy away from challenging ideas. No wonder so
many healthcare ads look so similar.
But there are signs that some clients are adopting a bolder
’Brand managers on the consumer side realised in the late 70s that the
way to get ahead was to take risks and produce famous ads. That’s now
happening on the pharmaceutical side,’ says Walsh.
Saatchi Healthcare Connection is one of the few healthcare agencies to
employ planners and Walsh is convinced that planners help to reassure
clients and encourage them to take a few risks.
But not all healthcare agency creatives are convinced that planners are
needed on the ethical side as the target audience is so small and
well-known. They probably have more of a role to play with OTC drugs and
more consumer healthcare products.
Not all the problems of lack of creativity can be blamed on the
’It’s easy to blame the client, given their background and lack of
If you let them, they will scupper good ideas. But if you have a good
relationship with the client and know what you’re doing, they can see
good work. I think a lot of the problems are on the supply side.
Healthcare agencies suffer from a lack of talent,’ asserts Dean Woolley,
creative director of Woolley Pau.
It is hard to attract good creatives to the healthcare agency sector for
a number of reasons and copywriters, in particular, are in extremely
short supply. First, creatives with an arts background can be
technophobic and shy away from all the research and technobabble that
come with healthcare products. Also, most ethical advertising is
press-only and below the line, which won’t appeal to a creative who
wants to work across all media. So healthcare agencies are often left
with creatives who aren’t comfortable with science or science buffs who
don’t understand advertising.
A number of healthcare agencies have begun to challenge the standard
practices and are trying to attract more creatives into the sector. ’We
have taken a totally different view to the traditional approach which
has been to bring in technical people to deal with the issues. What
we’ve done is marry a really good consumer copywriter with an ethical
art director or the other way round,’ says Saatchi’s Walsh.
Next year the Healthcare Advertising Agencies Group’s Best of Health
Awards will include a competition for students of life science and art,
which will hopefully enlarge the pool of talent from which agencies can
Roz Beasley, creative director of Herman Beasley, says that recruitment
will continue to be a problem for some time, but predicts that more
agencies might hire technical specialists to work alongside creatives in
an advisory capacity.
The process has to continue because the whole business is becoming much
more competitive. There are now over 50 healthcare agencies compared
with just half a dozen 20 years ago. And, more importantly, as more
prescription drugs become available OTC, healthcare agencies will
increasingly find themselves in the same market as mainstream consumer
agencies. If they don’t measure up, they risk losing business.
MARTYN WALSH European Creative Director Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare
Favourite pharmaceutical ad - Edronax anti-depressant press ads by
Leavold Pollard Rogan for Pharmacia & Upjohn.
’In amongst a mass of ads that just tell you what a product does, the
Edronax ads go beyond the standard product description. They are about
finding out how depression expresses itself with the patient, the
tell-tale signs that a doctor should look for and how the drug can help
the patient improve their own self-perception.
In a world of very technical ads, the Edronax ad comes at you as a
’Doctors are consumers too and it would appeal to them. It treats the
doctor with respect and talks to him as a human being.’
Favourite OTC ad - Alka Seltzer ’Lifeboat’ TV commercial by Abbott Mead
Vickers BBDO. ’The commercial is really terrific. The ad is incredibly
brave and took a brave client to run it, but it will register in
people’s minds. It goes back to basics: it treats the consumer with
intelligence and takes an interesting scenario, one that’s
’We will see more healthcare ads like that - ones that cut through all
the consumer ads in the same slot and don’t lag behind or apologise and
don’t turn up with the usual white coat and stethoscope.’
PHIL COX Creative Director Lane Earl & Cox
Favourite healthcare ad - Twinrix hepatitis vaccine press ads by Ogilvy
& Mather for SmithKline Beecham.
’I chose the Twinrix Postcards campaign because it is a solid idea
relying on the irritating desire to read other people’s correspondence.
It works every time. I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t stopped to read
And that’s it, you’re hooked! Of course it breaks all the rules of
pharmaceutical advertising. No proper headline. Hardly any body copy. No
floating molecules and a logo that doesn’t take up two thirds of the
page. It’s the simplicity of the idea which works so well. It involves
patients without showing patients, which can be a real problem in
health-care advertising. If you show them looking fit and well, then the
ad doesn’t relate to the specific condition and product. If you present
them looking ill, it looks like the product doesn’t work. What really
gets me is the attention to detail. They really didn’t have to include
the note: ’Based on an actual case history’. I believe in these cards. I
believe their stories.
A great idea put together with loving care. What more can you ask?’
ROZ BEASLEY Creative Director Herman Beasley
Favourite ethical ad - Klaricid XL, a product to treat chest infections
for Abbot Laboratories.
’The Klaricid Invisible Man ad has enormous stopping power. It’s nicely
art directed, although copy and typography could have been much better,
and it’s a novel way of communicating the efficacy of the product.
It’s good to see an established brand use a very different approach to
their previous campaign, which was very tired looking. The agency must
have a client in Abbot that has foresight. I suspect it wasn’t
researched to death or else it wouldn’t have retained this degree of
Favourite OTC ad - Fybogel poster campaign.
’It’s a fast, innovative visual communication, which I suspect a lot of
creatives will have thought of, but not dared to present to the
The sensitive subject is given an irreverent treatment, yet one that
works and gives an old established brand new life and street cred.I
wonder if the fact that this idea came out of a big agency gave it extra
DEAN WOOLLEY Creative Director Woolley Pau
Favourite ad - Fybogel, a product to treat constipation which is
available on prescription and over-the-counter. A series of press and
poster ads were created by Medicus UK.
’Fybogel is an exemplary campaign. It’s very relaxed, it doesn’t
patronise the audience and it is accessible. If you consider that the
brand is for constipation, that’s no mean feat. It’s also simple,
doesn’t try too hard and is consumer friendly.
’Very often healthcare ads try too hard because clients don’t understand
what the advertising medium is about. Fybogel is an ad that doesn’t (do
Medicus has also done some nice things on the prescription side. The
campaign for doctors is different, but has the same strengths as the
consumer campaign: it’s very simple and not cluttered up with too many
messages. It’s also humorous without laughing at the condition
The ad featuring the horsy, toffee-nosed woman with the words ’Stuck
Up?’ and then just the Fybogel logo implants the brand name in
ALEX PERRYMAN Creative Director Brader Perryman
My favourite ad is for Twinrix.
’They are simple, beautifully crafted and emotionally involve the reader
in a subtle way. There’s a lot of attention to detail - the dog-eared
postcards, postmarks - which make it look just right.
Second favourite ad - Microgynon 30 oral contraceptive press ads by
Money Syner for Schering Health Care.
’Microgynon has been around for a long time, but it’s been up against it
since the pill scare of Autumn 1995 and the new third generation of
pills. Microgynon wasn’t promoted for a while, although it was still
available on prescription. This is a new ad for an old product. It’s a
very simple, straightforward piece of communication.
Oral contraceptive ads usually feature pretty young girls and are a bit
superficial and don’t necessarily relate to the people who use the
In the Microgynon ad, the image chosen is a group of untrustworthy
looking young lads sitting in a cafe with the line: ’Not everything in
life can be trusted like Microgynon 30’. The men are featured for a
reason and it’s very relevant. There is very little to differentiate one
oral contraceptive ad from another and they don’t really add to the
branding of the product, whereas the Microgynon ad stands out. It’s not
an amazing idea, but it’s different.’
This article was first published on Campaign