Have the VMAs gone to the dogs or cats?

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If you thought Pharma adland was a bit of a niche area, some of you will have experienced the niche within the niche that is Veterinary pharma.

Now that is niche.

That is a Rolls Royce Cor-niche

That’s what Sean Connery calls the airport when you visit Cannes.

And to a certain extent the leaps that Pharma in general has made towards improving creative standards has been largely ignored by our animal health brothers and sisters, with a few notable exceptions.

But whatever you think of the kind of work that regularly wins the VMAs (Veterinary Marketing Awards not the Miley Cyrus ones) and whether or not you think it’s a stitch up between the dominant Pharma company and the awards committee the fact remains that it’s probably the best veterinary work out there.

It suffers from the same compromises and international confusions that everything else does.

But put any creative director or client of your choice in a room with a free lunch and see if you don’t get the same results.

I’ve never actually heard anyone use the words ‘stitch up’ out loud but at the awards luncheon it was definitely in the air.  A few “so and so won’t be entering next year…there’s no point” type comments accompanied by a sort of petulant teenage dropping of the shoulders.

A certain, well…er..cattiness…which I found rather offensive but also rather worrying for the only UK awards that recognize an albeit smaller market but no less important or potentially creative.

That aside, I am intrigued by the obvious creative culture that exists within Boehringer Ingelheim’s Animal Health division and why they consistently produce the best work and certainly the work that dominates the modest yet proud VMAs.

It’s not as if BI have a reputation for superior creativity particularly.


So what makes BI so dominant?

Well, firstly they enter about six times more than anyone else so they up their chances significantly.

But why?

I mean, some of the BI work was great but some of it was awful too and yet there it was on the table asking to be judged.

The answer has to do with competitiveness and all the usual kudos and glory associated with parading your success in front of your peers.

With one crucial difference.

At BI, the awards are their chance to shine against each other, division against division, brand against brand. Pig takes on Cow, CKD takes on ticks and fleas and creativity is understood and championed, for the most part.

It’s dog eat dog.

I think 9 out of the final 11 pieces of work brought back for the best in show award were BI campaigns or items, all for different sectors of the veterinary world.

Which makes it in danger of becoming some sort of BI internal awards, such is the competitive culture that has developed.

Okay, so they dominate the awards but what is fascinating and encouraging is that this creative culture has built their brands too.

The truth is that BI also score extremely highly on awareness and effectiveness and consistently top those types of polls, which means that even though they are paying the same as their competitors for their creative agencies they are getting considerably more bang for their buck.

And to prove it, The President’s award this year was also voted the winner in the category chosen by the target market themselves, the vets.

So it wasn’t just creatives who liked the work.

The agencies are asked (politely) to enter every item produced such is the hunger for each brand manager to play the game and win, no matter what chance it actually has.

The very thing that could work for an entire industry has almost exclusively been adopted by one company, and to great effect.

To digress for a moment, when I worked at Havas we had two car accounts, Peugeot and Citroen which both had the same holding company owners.

We had to have two buildings as the marketing teams didn’t want to accidentally meet anyone from a brand they viewed as competitors and have to smile awkwardly at each other in the lift. In those days though, there was one ECD who ran the agency and Peugeot and a different CD who would run the Citroen account. The Citroen role was like the British Airways departure lounge. A great brand but a nightmare client process that reduced it to a knock-down bargain-basement brand for over a decade. CDs would come and go regularly, frustrated by the head client’s refusal to allow the word brand to be used in meetings. She didn’t believe in it.


The Peugeot advertising, albeit populist in its creative approach, was the envy of the Citroen guys.

I remember one conversation that the marketing director at Citroen UK had with our bigwigs.

In all seriousness he said “Why can’t I have as good a campaign as the Peugeot guys?”

The reply that he never got but should have had was “Well, it’s the same agency, you figure it out”

So what do you do if you are MSD, Bayer or even some other smaller player?

Unfortunately the only answer, if you care about effectiveness, is to up your creative game. Push your comfort zones, listen to your agencies. Join the game, don’t walk away from it.

Even if you don’t triumph it won’t hurt your business because one of the most powerful business tools is creativity.

So, there is no conspiracy, no bias, no stitch up.

The VMAs need your support but if you don’t think your work is up to it, find a better agency or let your current one spread its wings a little. The entire category will benefit.

Let’s stop it being a one horse, dog, cat, bovine and porcine race.




It’s not an ad, it’s a sales rep.


At the gleaming offices of PHARMACOMGLOM on the outskirts of Slough, it was set to be an exciting start to the week.

The final candidate for the vacancy in the sales representative department was waiting in reception.

He wasn’t reading up on the company in the strategically positioned brochures like all the others had, he was flicking crumbs off his thighs, the remnants of a hurried breakfast on the bus.

Derek Bradshaw, head of sales, had one last look at the candidate’s CV from his 17th floor office over looking the M4. It was a lengthy 16 page CV and that was always a good sign, Derek felt.

More is more, he always said.

This candidate…Bob Smith… wasn’t Sheila the recruiter’s recommendation but he certainly fitted the bill as to what he’d asked for. A massive amount of experience in a range of different markets with some reasonable results.

He’d been successful back in the 80s, so he could work well for us Derek thought.

He straightened his tie and picked up the phone.

“Is he here yet?….well where the hell is he?”

This is such an important decision for me today, Derek thought, as he tossed the receiver back in to it’s holder. The whole of next years sales figures could rest upon this hire.

“Bob Smith?”

At first Bob didn’t really hear his name being called, he was watching the receptionist’s legs walk across the lobby.

“Bob Smith?”

This time the voice was nearer and the legs were right in front of him. He looked up.


The legs kept walking.

“Bob Smith?”

“Yes..excuse me….over here!”

Denise the receptionist stopped, raised her nose upwards like a lion that had just caught the sent of a passing zebra, and turned on her heel.

“Why didn’t you say you were here?”

“I did”

“Oh..I didn’t notice you”


“Seventeenth floor..third office on left” said Denise pointing at the lift doors.

The lift he doors parted and Bob was greeted by Derek’s extended hand and one raised eyebrow.

“Have we met before?” said Derek as they walked past the rows of cubicles and furiously typing workers.

“Don’t think so” replied Bob Smith, in what Derek thought a rather monotone voice.

“You look familiar”

“I get that a lot” said Bob.” I think it’s my suit”

Bob Smith was dressed in a, well what was that? It looked like he’d got the jacket from a charity shop and the trousers from Primark.

“So, Bob…tell me about yourself”

“MY NAME IS BOB SMITH” Bob suddenly shouted.

Okay, bit shouty thought Derek…but he gets his point across.


“Really?” said Derek as he slid his chair back a few inches, hoping Bob didn’t notice.” Now this was more like it.” thought Derek.”Don’t tell me a joke..tell me you’re funny!”


Derek wrote that down. 26%, competitor. This was excellent. He would have to check with someone to verify that obviously. Not sure who.

“Yes, and I have my own phone”

“Own phone” said Derek under his breath and gave a big tick next to Bob’s name. Writing ‘economical’ in pencil beside it.

“And my number is 0887 534 670…so you can call me to offer me the job. Today!”

“Great” said Derek…”always closing!”…there was nothing to not get about Bob. There was something comforting about his direct, brash approach.

“That number again…is 0887 534 670”

“Okay…wow…you don’t forget people like er….Bob in hurry”

“And this year I was voted top salesman in Berkshire!!” Bob added.



“Got it!” Derek laughed nervously, pushing his chair back another six inches.

Okay, bit annoying now Derek thought.

Salary expectations?

“15k” said Bob.

Derek tried to disguise his sudden intake of breath. We’re not made of money!

But, this sales position was pivotal if the brand GENERIKA was going to really take off and be a multi-billion dollar success.

‘Is that negotiable?” he asked thinking if you don’t ask you don’t get.


“How about 10k…you see our budgets have just been slashed”. They hadn’t, but Derek decided they would be.

“Not a problem”.

Even better, a reasonable man.

The interview quickly came to a close and Derek ushered Bob out as quickly as he could and sat back down in his chair, thumbing through his sixteen page CV over and over again.

The thing about Bob was you knew he wouldn’t upset any existing customers. No nonsense, what you see is what you get.

All the information right there. The drug will sell itself, all Bob has to do is shout the facts at them.

As Derek always said, don’t sell…tell!

All those people who call themselves sales people that Sheila the recruiter had tried to fob him off with? With all that charm and the getting to know you chumminess. All that building a relationship modern thinking claptrap, all that talking to me like I’m not an idiot!!

It was a well known fact scientists and doctors are mostly idiots.

PhDs are the worst, Derek said out loud as he filled his water bottle from the cooler. A few feet away an Asian looking woman who was typing something, momentarily stopped and rolled her eyes.

No, no..that ‘creativity’ bullshit was for the other schmucks. Not for PHARMACOMGLOM, we’re just not risk takers.

So Bob got the job and all was happy for a while.

Until the sales figures came in.

To Derek’s surprise, apparently no one really remembered what it was Bob was selling, not even the telephone number.

“Perhaps he wasn’t shouting it loudly enough?” said Colin, Derek’s MD as he started to tap at his iphone.

“It’s possible I suppose” replied a dumfounded Derek.

“Was he wearing the company blazer with the huge logo on the breast pocket?”

“We had it made bigger just in case”

“Not big enough, obviously…did he tell customers why our drug was more efficacious?”

“We gave him a chart and everything”

“Sometimes I despair of people”

“Our follow up survey says he was just like all the other reps people saw during their busy day…I thought that would be a good thing!”

Colin looked up momentarily.

“Who wouldn’t!”

“That damn recruiter, sending me substandard candidates”

“Well, there’s nothing for it” Colin said, this time not even looking up.

“What’s that?”

“The safest bet we can make. We need to hire ten more just like Bob and up the budget”

“I’ll call the recruiter.”






Tony Soprano and the golden age of pharma

Transferring to the pharma division of Adland, leaving behind a moderately successful career in the wacky world of consumer creative (not fired too many times, a couple of awards, made it to CD, and some nice shoots and some excellent lunches) was definitely something I felt ready for, when the job offer came.

But I would be lying if I didn’t give it some thought as to whether it would be a move I would regret.

I mean..pharma? Please.

Let’s be frank, people in consumer advertising look down upon the people in pharma, just like ‘real’ artists, authors, comedy writers and producers look down on people in consumer advertising.

It makes us all feel better about ourselves.

In 2011 I had been milling about adland doing freelance work for two years after leaving HAVAS.

I was lucky, I was busy, but I was intrigued by a spec meeting I had with a successful ad-agency in leafy Windsor by the name of Langland.

If you are in healthcare they need no introduction.

I had seen something in the cinema that I discovered was created there.

My brain pattern went something like:…nice ad..from agency in Windsor….does not compute…

So I gave them a call.

Their creative Director, Andrew Spurgeon, was of a similar breed to me, albeit younger, more talented, successful and handsome, he had been a CD at JWT and run some big pieces of business like Shell. I’d been at HAVAS and worked on Exxon Mobil and Peugeot.

I’m sure both our consciences are entirely clear.

We chatted for a bit and he said the usual about ‘nothing at the moment’ but he’d bear me in mind.

As I left I looked at the work on the wall and was slightly confused.

This was actually good shit.

With ideas and everything.

The cinema ad that caught my eye was one for Pfizer and it was aimed at stopping the sale of illegal drugs off the internet. It’s a little disturbing but I post it here for you to judge for yourselves.

This was the kind of brief that any consumer creative would kill for. (and to be honest almost a one off in pharma but nevertheless…)

It got me thinking.

Maybe the only real difference is perception.

In his book ‘Difficult men’ David Thomson writes about David Chase the creator and showrunner of The Sopranos.

The man is a massive talent, irascible, unremittingly morose by all accounts and despite being at the forefront of nothing less than a TV revolution his dream was to write movies.

“Look, I do not care about television. I don’t care about where television is going or anything else about it” he said, three years after the finale of The Sopranos. “I’m a man who wanted to make movies”

Before what Thomson describes as the ‘third golden age of Television’ ( including shows like The Wire, Six feet under and Breaking Bad) there was just network TV.

In the 70s, 80s and 90s, if you were in Hollywood you didn’t want to write for TV, you wanted to write movies, but hey, it was a living.

Movie writers looked down on TV writers like TV writers looked down on advertising writers.

Then two things happened.

Firstly, the bottom fell out of the independent film industry in America and a lot of hugely talented people needed to work so found themselves in TV productions, not least movie actors.

Secondly the rise of the subscription TV channel, namely HBO.

This combination produced some incredible shows. Shows that the networks would never touch, with nudity, the C word and if you’ve watched Game of Thrones, an almost fanatical devotion to blood and gore. But more importantly they didn’t succumb to the sanitized, must have a moral, conservatism that came with having an advertiser sponsoring the production.

Advertisers demanded wholesome heroes that families could relate to and that were on brand.

I know, can you imagine?

Within a few years TV had changed for ever, money and talent fueled the creative renaissance. The creative snobbery line had been blurred.

Personally I can’t remember a film that has engaged, moved, excited and thrilled me as much as the five seasons of Breaking Bad.

But clearly still David Chase didn’t see his achievement as that worthwhile.

It’s only TV, not movies.

In pharma, I see more and more people looking at it with a cocked head and one squinty eye. I am getting the odd call from curious creatives with armloads of awards going ‘so what’s all this pharma lark about?”

And you don’t have to look too closely to see two things happening.

The digital revolution means more than just iPads and websites and banners that nobody clicks on.

It also means film. Check this out from Publicis life brands. This blew me away.


The budgets are limited, I grant you, but actual moving pictures with emotional content?

I believe where creative opportunities lie, creative people will surely follow.

Which leads on to the second aspect. There has already been an influx of talent from consumer agencies and a new wave of creative directors that are taking the challenge set down by Langland.

Soon pharma will require more people who have made films, or commercials, to know how to conceive, write and produce them. And that will, importantly, attract young people coming in to the industry, be it medical writers or art directors.

One year after my meeting with Andrew Spurgeon he rang. I spent three months there and my head was turned.

So, now with the first Lions Health and creative opportunities lying about the place like Gold in the California hills – pre-rush – the next few years will be interesting to observe.

Here are a couple of posters from a campaign we’ve created at CDM London, the first work we’ve done that I feel proud enough to share, and that might surprise you for a pharma brief. They are part of four digital posters we did for a congress in Paris for GOUT awareness. The others included Isaac Newton looking through 3D glasses and Beethoven listening to his Dr Dre Beats.

The second golden age of pharma?

Possibly its first.

And personally I’m excited to be aboard the train. Mostly because I was the guy who thought the internet wouldn’t catch on.

Am I worried I’ll never get a knock on the door from consumer adland?

No dear reader…I am not.

Because….I am the one who knocks.

Sorry, couldn’t resist it.

And best of all, there’s always tabloid journalists to look down on.