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Healthcare Marketers Must Embrace Risk To Innovate

December 13, 2018
Posted by Eric Delash

To achieve real marketing innovation in healthcare, Pharma advertisers must look beyond the case study, and embrace strategic risks.

In late September, the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team introduced their new mascot, Gritty — to some mixed reviews. Gritty is bright orange, furry, and looks like a Sesame Street character that’s seen better days, a stark contrast from his animal-based NHL mascot peers. On social media, reactions ran the gamut: some fans were delighted by Gritty’s unique look, while others noted his “crazy eyes.”

But with controversy comes buzz: within 24 hours, “Gritty” was the most-searched term on Google, the star of a number of viral memes, and on a media tour that included GMA, Late Night, and several sportscasts. Tim Buckman, SVP of Communications at Comcast Spectacor, posted a collage of Gritty’s experiences captioned “…We introduced Gritty to the world. More proof that amazing things can happen when we step outside of our comfort zones and rally around a big idea.”

So how does any of this apply to what we do as pharma advertisers? I’ll answer that question — with a few more questions. Is it possible that we’ve fallen victim to case studies? Have we become too reliant on proving ideas before we even contract? Have we lost the art of trusting our gut as marketers? I’d argue the answer to all of these questions is “yes.”

With Healthcare Marketing Risk Comes Healthcare Marketing Opportunity

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to throw case studies and audience insights out the window. As marketers in 2018, we have more data at our fingertips than ever before, and failing to tap into that data would be a huge mistake and a terrible waste. However, true marketing innovation requires a precise balance of both science and art.

I’d argue that pharma advertisers are particularly susceptible to forgetting the “art” half of that equation. By nature, healthcare advertising provides a crutch to advertisers and marketers in the form of industry guidelines and regulations. We’re quick to point out why we can’t do something, rather than eager to question how we could make something work within those boundaries.

For an example, just look at how many years were deemed healthcare’s “year of mobile,” and how many times we turned away conversations with Facebook because there was just “no way” pharma could move into social. As marketers, we need to look ahead and push the industry to evolve, not wait until progress is absolutely necessary. Now, companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Bayer, Biogen, and Novartis (among others) have stepped into the space and made their social presence a core element of their marketing mix.

Fortunately, data can make us a little more comfortable in doing that. For example, I worked on a product launch a few years back that offered a significant opportunity for market shaping efforts. My team pitched an innovative idea that was truly multi-channel, meaning that the messaging was entirely different by platform and by distribution vehicle (i.e. different publications), and that expanded outside our endemic comfort zone.

About nine months later, we launched the campaign with a stripped-down version of the proposal that emphasized “endemically relevant content” and avoided areas outside of our wheelhouse. That may sound like a failure, but I’d argue that it’s not. Behind every innovative healthcare campaign, there’s a strategic marketing risk that was retooled and fine-tuned to work for the product and audience at hand. When that initial, boundary-pushing idea is stripped down, you haven’t failed. It’s when you never even came up with that idea to begin with that you’ve missed your chance to innovate. In the years that have passed, this brand now runs extensively on TV, and has one of the largest budgets within its Pharma Company. Much like Rome, innovation isn’t built in a day.

Achieving Innovation Through Risk-Tolerant Healthcare Marketing Strategies

While we’re not one-hundred percent there yet, pharma advertisers — and the healthcare industry — are evolving. “Lifestyle” publishers who have struggled to get a seat at the healthcare advertising table have expanded their efforts to prioritize targeting, reflecting our own seriousness to provide results for our brands.

Similarly, pharma has long sat out the Super Bowl, but two years ago one brand produced and ran a spot for an opioid-induced constipation treatment. The public was critical, but it created a lot of buzz for the product. Similarly, there was a cancer treatment product that wanted to dip into the TV space, with an estimated patient population of ~30K. At first glance, the amount of wasted “impressions” projects out poorly. However, after the team crunched the numbers and considered the expected lifetime value of the product, they realized  that if even a decent portion of the patient population were converted, it would prove successful. Real innovation only happens when you take a new approach to an old problem. The untried solution is often the best one, but finding and implementing it means having the courage to tolerate a certain degree of risk.

As the healthcare industry continues to evolve, healthcare advertisers need to challenge themselves, challenge their clients, their partners, and above all, challenge the status quo. It’s okay to take a risk on an idea and fail; with innovation comes risk, and with risk, comes the opportunity to produce unique work that drives our client’s business — and the healthcare industry at large — forward.

I’ll close with a challenge to my fellow innovators: next time you have a meeting with a publisher partner, instead of asking for case studies or harping on why something won’t work, ask how you can be the first to know about a beta opportunity or how you can create something new. Challenge the status quo. Disrupt the norm. Create your Gritty. Embrace strategic risk and drive real innovation in healthcare marketing.


Eric DeLash, Media Director, joined Digitas Health in June 2009, moving to PHM with our inception in 2012. His expertise spans digital, paid search, and offline media. During his tenure he has managed strategy and day-to-day operations across disciplines for several major clients at PHM. He is skilled at ensuring integration across partner agencies for a seamless client experience.

Eric is a graduate from the University of Maryland, with a bachelor’s degree in communication. He also successfully completed the 4As Advertising program in 2011 as a representative of Publicis Health Media.

Eric dove the Great Barrier Reef in 2007 (without lessons) and hosted his own sports talk radio show while at the University of Maryland. He is a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan.

Connect with Eric on LinkedIn.


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