Creativity Through Understanding

Creative consumer campaigns begin with a clear understanding of pharma rules and regulations
Jul 30, 2007
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Mel Sokotch has seen his share of consumer advertising, having worked in the business for nearly 30 years. He's done time at Foote Cone & Belding and Grey Advertising, and he's handled campaigns for Merck, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly. Most recently, Sokotch penned Shortcuts to the Obvious, a how-to book documenting common marketing mistakes and the ways in which agencies can better position ads. The book is geared toward general consumer advertising, but it includes numerous pharma examples. Pharm Exec caught up with Sokotch to learn more about what marketers can do to build better campaigns.

What are some of the positive aspects of DTC marketing in pharma?

If done right, DTC is highly effective, not only from a business standpoint, but also from a greater-good standpoint. The amount of above-the-line advertising spending in pharma in 2006, when the full story is told, will probably approach $5 billion—that's an enormous number. I think it's third or fourth among all big categories. In just about 10 years, traditional advertising has become incredibly important to the pharma business, and the return on investment, if the program is done right, pays back.

What about the argument that DTC isn't promoting health but is just a way to sell more drugs?

You can argue both sides. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which is an independent organization that studies healthcare, did a study about five or six years ago about whether DTC helps or hurts the healthcare industry. What it found was that the people suffering from significant conditions who weren't getting diagnosed and treated are now getting help. The foundation found that there is some opportunism and some stupidity and some mistakes that take place in this business. But at the end of the day, more people get treated as a result of communication that informs consumers that a disease or symptoms can be dealt with effectively if they talk to their doctor.

What trends do you see in today's DTC marketing?

Television is still critical to this business, because it is the one medium that can reach virtually everybody very quickly. But television is being used differently today than it was five years ago. The integration of television and the Internet is much bigger than the sum of its parts. So we're seeing a lot more television ads driving patients not directly to their doctor, but to a Web site where they can learn more, get educated, and then go into their doctors' offices and have an even more meaningful dialogue.

What are some common mistakes pharma marketers are making?

Without question, there are some awful campaigns on the air that aren't clear, that don't take the subject seriously—and you'll find some opportunism out there. There are some ads that I have to work very hard to understand what that commercial is all about. When you're up against nine commercials in a station break, clarity is incredibly important. And it becomes an even greater challenge for DTC, especially on the branded side of it where you've got to detail fair balance, which includes side effects and a number of different calls to action. So, the challenge becomes, how do you lay all that information out in a way that's interesting but also clear?

How can pharma marketers deal with situations where they are creatively constrained?

The creative output in DTC is much better today than it was 10 or 15 years ago, but the challenge continues to be this: This is a heavily regulated industry and getting a communication out to a consumer means that you have to incorporate a lot of caveats, including side effects, contraindications, and a number of different ways where the consumer can access all of that detailed information. That is a lot of information for a creative team to deal with. So many of the most creative people in this business shy away from DTC advertising because they believe, I think erroneously, that all of these regulations will limit their creativity. The fact of the matter is, if you study and embrace the rules and regulations and you understand what they're really talking about, you can create wonderful advertising.

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