Creativity in healthcare comms: polevaulting over everyday obstacles

Cannes Lions Health

There are different, highly effective ways to engage with people in healthcare - and its the obligation of creative agencies to open these doors and lead our clients through, says Ed Shorthose

In just three years, the Lions Health awards have grown to become arguably healthcare’s foremost creative showcase. The ideas and case studies on display are rightly acclaimed as an inspiration to us all. As the MD of a healthcare creative agency, and therefore perpetually in need of inspiration, I’m fascinated by what succeeds in Cannes. And, looking at the work that wins, one thing is striking: the Cannes Lions’ version of inspiration is not necessarily grounded in my version of reality – but that’s okay with me.

There is an archetypal Cannes-worthy case study – and to me it’s inspirational in the way the Olympics are inspirational; both involve people doing amazing things that have no immediate connection to my everyday life.

When, in the Olympics, a man pole-vaults over a six-metre bar, I have to admire the skill, the strength and the audacity of that one magical moment. And of course it’s inspiring. It’s living proof of the power of skill, strength and audacity when it comes to facing life’s challenges. But the one thing I don’t think is, ‘Where can I get one of those poles’? because propelling myself higher than a double-decker bus will never be something I’m called upon to do in the normal course of my day.

It’s very much the same when sitting in the Cannes auditorium on awards night, discovering what won gold, silver and bronze. It’s a procession of big, bonkers ideas, most of which solve the sorts of problems I know our clients will never bring to our agency. In fact, I’m sure many of the winning ideas are not answers to a brief at all – they are immaculately conceived and only then proposed to the client as a cool or worthy thing to do. Some of them seem purpose-made for one medium only: the case study film.

But who cares? It is undoubtedly inspiring stuff.

This year’s Olympian ideas at Cannes include a choir of people with lung disease, a bicycle with the symptoms of MS, a virtual reality migraine simulator, two solutions for the problem of colour blindness, and the man boobs campaign as a wonderful way to promote breast cancer self examination.

Grey Melbourne won a Silver Lion for its ‘This Bike has MS’ work for MS Australia


They all deserve to be celebrated for the brilliant way they capture the imagination. But how will their example energise my agency on a wet Monday morning with a week’s worth of job bags waiting?

Well, if the task at hand is to develop another iPad sales aid, we can’t really call the client and say, ‘Let’s put together a choir instead’. But that’s missing the point.

Ogilvy & Mather London's "Breathless Choir" for Philips won the Grand Prix in the pharmaceutical category

The lesson to take from Cannes Lions is that out there, beyond the usual channels of communication, there are different, highly effective ways to engage with people. And as agencies it is very much in our power, and surely our obligation, to open these doors and lead our clients through. At this level it is as much about creating the opportunities to do great work as it is about creating the work itself.

That’s not to say the usual channels of communication are overlooked among the Cannes Lions winners. There’s print work and posters and films and plenty of craft to love.

What is under-represented at Cannes, though, is any work promoting healthcare brands to healthcare professionals. It seems easier to please the awards juries when the subject is the impact of a disease itself, rather than the effect of the medicines treating it.

Social concerns and public health issues are also much more likely to feature in the prizes than the kind of brand-versus-brand advocacy for which agencies earn most of their income. This is odd because Cannes Lions Health was specifically set up to recognise the achievements of those working in one of the most tightly regulated areas of creativity. The chosen work is mostly the kind of thing that can, and frequently does, win in the non-healthcare Lions categories, which begs the question: why is Lions Health as separated from the mainstream as it currently is. What is Cannes Lions Health for exactly?

There is, of course, a clue in the event’s slogan: ‘Life-Changing Creativity’. That certainly gives it a lofty sense of purpose – and a good one too. It’s up there with the Olympic motto, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’. And like the Olympics, it’s clear the Lions Health awards exist to celebrate the extreme limits of what’s possible, not the boundaries of what’s probable.

Ed Shorthose is Managing Director of woolley pau gyro, the healthcare specialist agency of the Gyro network. Ed has been Chair of the IPA healthcare Group since 2013, sits on the Effectiveness Group and was recently made a Fellow of the IPA. 

Deadline for entries into IPA Best of Health Show is 26 August. The award ceremony takes place in London on 29 November.

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Andrew McConaghie

6 July, 2016