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.



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