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December 16, 2008
Creative Medical Advertising—Oxymoron?
Okay, I have a confession to make: Despite having been a copywriter for fifteen years and a creative director for ten more—running my own eponymous and award-winning agency for five of those years and for the rest working at some pretty well-regarded agencies (by my industry’s standard, at least) in five countries—some readers of this column might say that I’ve never quite fully managed to actually get into advertising, really. You see, the fact is that those twenty-five years were spent in medical advertising. And not in the making of those boomer-disorder TV spots that everyone loves to hate—there’s still some fame (or infamy) in that. No, they’ve been spent devising the printed sales aids and journal ads and patient education leaflets through which the pharma industry seeks to persuade your physician to prescribe its products as the cure for what ails you, at any given time.
Now, while medical advertising used to be a fabulous generator of income (days long gone, by the way), it has never been regarded by the ad industry as a generator of high-profile creative executions. Notice I say executions and not ideas; I firmly believe that this arm of the business has been as fecund and fruitful a hothouse of great communication ideas as any other—just too often obscured by graphs and tables and complicated words in the headline. Nowadays, though, I’m no longer as sure of that as I used to be. Frankly, we’ve had the stuffing regulated out of us. Especially those of us who’ve been at it for a while.
It used to be that medical creatives could feel good about themselves, amongst themselves. We had our own award shows that sorted the wheat from the chaff, and we could look smugly down our noses at simpletons selling soap powder and sugar water, knowing that we were helping to keep the smartest folks around properly informed about up-to-date ways of treating cancer, cardiac disease, and chronic whatever. We felt like the intelligentsia of advertising and our victories were accomplished through the crafting of ideas; through metaphor, storyline, and okay, admittedly, sometimes even hyperbole. Never mind that our more glamorous industry-mates might think we were dorks. We knew a good idea when we sold one. Masters of nuance, we could weave sophisticated arguments from raw clinical data and infer advantage despite a product presenting a Package Insert (upon which all claims must be based) of mind-numbing parity with its competitors. Well, we’ve had that bashed out of us and then some.
The very idea of an “idea” is now anathema to the FDA, and many big pharma companies have outsourced risk assessment to ex-FDA consultants whose job it is to say “no” to everything and strip value from their client’s communication efforts. And get paid handsomely for doing so! Ironically, and luckily for the pharma industry, this comes at a time when the medical advertising creative workforce has never been so well trained, contextually experienced, adept at its craft, and simply dying to do something special.
As usual, the youngsters are leading the charge. A client once told me that there would come a time that “one’s experience counts against one.” I’ve been battling with that for a while, tilting at the abovementioned windmills, but I think I’m starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, or some other reassuring cliché. Heretical as it may seem, I’m starting to believe that everything old is new again. After all, if all the creatives and all the customers and all the clients are thirty-something or younger (at least, those with any sort of authority), then all the archetypes are up for grabs. If the medium is the message, then the message is new. YouTube and URLs wash away the sins of the past. Everything’s a mashup, fresh, immediate, and potent as ever. Sample Aesop’s fables in Flash and voila, you’re golden. And why not? After all, our genes are millions of years in the making. Originality? Oh, please. As long as it sells, baby. As long as the client is happy and it sells.
If that sounds disgraceful, let me offer this up in my defense: I have the privilege of presiding over a tremendously talented creative department full of enthusiastic, fresh-faced young copywriters and art directors who never fail to amaze me by the brilliance and breadth of ideas they put up on the wall for every assignment. Often, the most apt of these involves a metaphor, and occasionally I have seen similar ideas before, maybe twenty years before. But I’m sure I only thought they were original then because I was too young to know any better.
I think it was T.S. Elliot who said that everything’s been done, it’s only the combinations that change, (someone else probably said it before him, right?) and the older I get the more I concur. Change the combination, change the medium, change the culture even, and you change everything. I increasingly find that those metaphors steeped in cultural relevance, those “old” ideas, are the ones the clients like the most, that undeniably float to the top in market research and that the physicians relate to best. Faced with success like that, me casting aspersions on their vintage can seem like sour grapes. It can suck enthusiasm from the building. I’m really trying to stop doing that. So, if the current regulatory climate precludes developing narratives of cutting-edge novelty, we always have the classics, and thank goodness. I’ll settle for sales, and keep my ego out of it. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as they say.

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Bruce Nicoll is creative director at S&R Communications in Durham, North Carolina. Originally from South Africa, Bruce loves to travel and has been lucky enough to also work at agencies in Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia, and on both U.S. coasts.

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