Dreaming of Creativity in the Pharma of the Future

June 19,2015

In the waning episodes of Mad Men, Don Draper asks his onetime adversary Ted Chaough what professional goals he might have for the future. “I’d really love to land a pharmaceutical,” Ted says behind his ’70s mustache. Even back then, the white whale of marketing was the high science of health.

In this century, we should count ourselves lucky to be healthcare marketers, telling stories that have an impact more meaningful than which shoes you wear or what car you drive. Our brands mean more to people, and the stories we tell must say more, too.

Yet the world is changing. The fluidity and ubiquity of disruptive innovation is winding its way into pharma, and it will be met with the very real need for compliance, value and business as usual. What marketing roads will we pave to tell medical advancement stories with creativity that can change lives?

Don’t libel off-label
With a responsibility to remain compliant to standards set by EMA and the FDA, pharma marketers navigate corporate and government infrastructures put in place to ensure that only approved, on-label communications reach healthcare practitioners around the globe. Their prescription choices depend on the best-approved data, delivered in the most creative way possible. But what about communications that support off-label uses—which even the FDA admits can be beneficial to patients in real-world scenarios?

There is a debate happening now around this issue, as the FDA stands to revise its draft guidance on reprint practices for articles or medical texts that contain off-label information regarding FDA-approved drugs. The Washington Legal Foundation has expressed its opinion that a restriction of unapproved communications may violate freedom of speech, and if that is found to be the case, perhaps a new avenue of creative expression will emerge dedicated solely to the compliant marketing of off-label use. Something so counter to our existing operating procedures is certain to shake the industry, but there will be opportunity in such paradigm shifts.

The FDA has acknowledged that off-label treatments play an important role in medical care. Experience tells us that innovative treatments and technologies move faster than the wheels of government.

For instance, the Apple HealthKit has the promise to crowdsource data in real time for clinical research or postmarket analysis, a goal that academia is eager to pursue. The influence that this real-world data may have on value-driven stakeholders like payers and policy makers will be interesting to witness, while the creative opportunities are inherent, and, frankly, freaking cool.

Ask your doctor
Something unique to the US—and perhaps New Zealand—market that will also elicit new creative exploration is updated guidance for the safety information required on direct-to-consumer communications. Anecdotal and clinical experience tell us that fair balance requirements such as a brief summary can be confusing to, or even ignored by, the patients they’re designed to inform.

To ameliorate this, the FDA has endeavored to update the wording to find “consumer-friendly language…designed for understanding by a broad target audience with various levels of literacy skills.” While the vernacular translation of medical jargon is the quick fix, the means by which we can create more intuitive understanding of risk information remains to be explored, and its effect on patient lives will be an engaging trend to watch.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads
New frontiers in medicine expand in every direction, and the marriage of biology and design makes science fiction look like prophecy. With new strategies emerging, including monoclonal antibodies, immunotherapy, 3-D printing pills (for better swallowing) and prosthetics (for better function), mind-controlled robotics, medical marijuana, nanobots and viral oncology, my creative mind dizzies with the anticipation of a new renaissance in healthcare marketing. I want to tell these stories; I’m sure you do too, but when?

Medical and technological advancements will move forward despite pharma business goals aimed at maximizing profits. It makes more business sense to extend the life cycle of an established brand or renew a patent on an older molecule than to branch out into new areas. But while there is a market for the “me-too” brands, and a rise in the generics game, we should all be clear on the trend in medical science: There will be new cures—and we can be the ones to tell the world.

Another exciting trend in medical advancements is that the patient experience is increasingly an initial ingredient of healthcare solutions. The user-first ethos, so prevalent in tech products, has lent itself to society at large. As users, we expect things to just work, so we want our healthcare products to just work, too.

What’s more, we’re at the dawn of limitless interconnectivity among all the things that fill our day (from shoes to cars). The big data gleaned through such connections (like the Apple HealthKit) has immense potential to improve patients’ lives. The Internet of things can include pharma too. What Nike did for sports connectivity, we can do for medical connectivity.

Grab your sunglasses
The future of health brand marketing is bright. The confluence of regulatory and corporate alignment, coupled with new research and development efforts from melding disciplines, puts forth a lot to look forward to, creatively speaking. Finding a way to tell a story beyond art and copy is an awesome responsibility we few can take on—with or without Ted Chaough’s mustache.

As for me: I expect to spearhead new business in the coming decade. Some RFP down the road will ask for experience not just in therapeutic categories, but in engineering and app development categories. There will inevitably be a personal device that tests for viral load or tumor antigen or A1C, pings your doctor the results, crowdsources data trends for your geography, and informs payers and policy makers so the cure can get to where it needs to go in a way that draws value for all parties. See you at the pitch.


Nick McDowell is a member of the Creative team, where he lends his hardcore copywriting chops to brands across any number of therapeutic categories, bringing together the best of branded and unbranded thinking to tell stories that resonate with healthcare providers and patients alike. And yes, he misses Mad Men, too.

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