Winning at Cannes in Healthcare – What Does It Take?

June 18, 2015

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At the inaugural Lions Health festival last year – two days of seminars and awards dedicated to creativity in healthcare communications – Jim Stengel, former P&G CMO and one of the first speakers at the festival, jump-started the uneasy, even queasy, feeling that stayed with me the remainder of the week. He told the half-filled auditorium of healthcare specialists, “The work feels predictable. It feels expected. I know you are regulated, but there are things that aren’t regulated that you can change.”

He poked holes in the prime excuse we’ve been using for years.

In an even bigger kick in the gut (or ego), I stayed on and attended seminars and awards presentations at the main Cannes Festival of Creativity in the days that followed. I saw clever, human ideas from other industries brought to life with heart, humor and, at times, breathtaking beauty.

“It’s all so simple, so powerful!” I ranted to myself. “There is absolutely no reason we are not doing this for all our healthcare clients!”

With all the brainpower, experience and eagerness to do the very best for our clients, why hadn’t we managed during the previous year to come up with anything close to the humanity and power of these winning ideas? After all, we’re good, very good actually. We’re successful, we’re growing and our clients seem happy. And we’re working with companies, products and services addressing the most personal of topics – our health.

It got me thinking about all the artificial barriers we put up in healthcare. It probably starts with the structure of medicine itself: a complex of specialists and managers with expertise in different body parts and systems, focused on individual diseases, disconnected from each other and the messy, wonderful human beings at the center of it all. This mentality spreads to almost everyone who works in the field.

For those who don’t work in healthcare communications, here’s how it generally works: We get a brief from a client and start by analyzing the heck out of it. We categorize it immediately, often by therapeutic area (‘it’s an oncology brief’) or marketing discipline (‘it’s a promotional brief’). We fill our heads with every little nugget of technical information we can find about the disease or company or product. And only once this fact-finding mission is complete do we start thinking much about the individual human beings – their habits, hopes, passions and fears – that we’ve been asked to touch and spur to take action.

We go about things backwards and wonder why it all feels so complicated!

Getting to breakthrough ideas in healthcare communications – ideas that truly inspire and win at Cannes – takes looking at things in a fundamentally different way. It doesn’t matter if the challenge is to reach a 25-year-old woman choosing a new birth control method, a world-renowned cardiologist at Oxford or a policy maker in Washington, D.C. It requires diving deeply into the lives of real people to understand what makes them smile and cringe and connect with the world around them.

My guess is that a lot of healthcare people just like me also had that same queasy feeling at Cannes last year and have had a rather interesting year. My prediction is that much more of the healthcare work we see in the coming days will be radically different than last year – now infused with the humanity, emotion and power to move people that a subject like our health deserves.