What's the problem with healthcare advertising?

By Fran Griffin, Senior Strategist at MullenLowe London

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Originally published in Campaign magazine.

“But how can you prove that your experience in healthcare will be relevant?” I suppress a sigh and begin a rehearsed monologue with forced enthusiasm. “Well, that’s a great question…!” It wasn’t a great question, and still isn’t. Yet I lost count of the times I had to answer it when moving from healthcare to consumer advertising.

The stigma grew as interviews progressed. One recruiter told me ‘not to dwell’ on my years in healthcare and instead try to bring conversations back to my less-recent consumer experience. It felt like a dirty little secret - don’t let on that you work in healthcare lest you be labelled boring and uncreative! What the fuck is that about? Everyone knows that doctors watch TV too, right?

This distrust and disinterest can be boiled down to two misperceptions. The first is that healthcare advertising is about boring problems and unrelatable people. The second is that it is void of creativity. I think they’re both a load of bollocks.

As a strategist, healthcare is a dream.

We always talk about solving problems, but these aren’t your typical ‘how does our tinned soup improve family life’ problems, these are real, ‘what the fuck would I do in that scenario’ problems. How can we help Muslims with diabetes safely fast during Ramadan? How can we teach Addiction Therapists the risks of Hepatitis C for people who inject drugs? How do we help sick kids enjoy playtime?

And this isn’t just true for strategists - all of those situations lend themselves to particularly spicy creative briefs that any team would be lucky to have a crack at.

As for the people we’re trying to address - ultimately and perhaps unsurprisingly, taking a consumer-first approach leads to the quick realisation that people are people. Healthcare is one of the very few things that every single person will need or experience in their lifetime. Whether you’re talking to someone living with the rarest of diseases, or those highly specialised Addiction Therapists, they have emotional and rational needs just as everyone else does.

Acronyms and labels are dangerously polarising. An HCP target translates to a B2B approach which often means the audience aren’t treated as real people. You only need to listen to a few Ritson talks to find a healthcare case study which uses the same core marketing principles as non-healthcare, to great success.

Personal health also works very differently now; the average person has much more self-awareness of their health than even a few years ago. Though this has resulted in the obvious drawbacks of self-diagnosis, Dr. Google and declining trust in healthcare professionals, from an advertising perspective it’s a sure argument for approaching healthcare comms through a more typical consumer lens. And indeed, it seems that companies are doing just that - several big pharmas have recently sought out consumer agencies for OTC campaigns. I can just imagine the all-agency email; “Who’s got healthcare experience? No seriously, we like it now…”.

We’ve established the blocker is not the problem nor the people we’re trying to address. So for the creativity part of the argument… Well, I could just whisper ‘Womb Stories’ and back away slowly. Or Bupa dancing lady. Maybe they’re too mainstream.


How about getting HIV on the G20 agenda?


Or a rock music festival to collect hair for kids with cancer?


Or a range of IKEA products for people living with disabilities?


Or a feature film at the New York Film Festival to promote organ donation?


Whether healthcare advertising is creatively interesting is nothing to do with the fact that it’s healthcare and everything to do with the brief, the team, the time, the money, your attitude (repeat that one) - essentially all the same things that influence whether a non-healthcare campaign is creatively interesting.

Not every brief will lead to a festival or feature film, but when is that ever the case? I’ve worked on projects for household name FMCG brands that I have personally found to be less interesting and with less creative opportunity than prescription drugs. And when you’re writing the awards papers, ‘lives saved’ sounds a heck of a lot more interesting to me than ‘packs sold’.

We need to see healthcare advertising as an opportunity for creativity, not an immediate block. And by the way - the solution for the Addiction Therapists was an Xbox game. And it worked.

MullenLowe Group

We are a creatively driven integrated marketing communications network with a strong entrepreneurial heritage and challenger mentality. We use creativity to get our clients’ brands an unfair share of attention.