Eggs in the airing cupboard

In consumer adland we often get the chance to experience the products we peddle.

If we’re lucky enough to work on a car account we get to do a driving day for a new model, if the latest beer is being launched we can down a few pints and really get a feel for the…ahem…taste. The consumer world is full of easily accessible products from Tampons to Tanning products, from condoms to Coca Cola for us to sample and improve our understanding of the ‘user experience’.

But in Pharmaland the very thing we often have to promote is so far removed from our daily lives as to make it almost impossible to truly know the wretchedness of the people whose lives we attempt to affect.

We have to put ourselves in the place of a diabetic, we must project ourselves in the psyche of an Oncologist or Endocrynologist without ever truly experiencing their position or decision making process.

There are no tasting sessions in this game.

On that rare occasion the two streams cross, the career path of a creative and a debilitating disease, it can either be deeply inspiring or like some giant emotional mangle. Sometimes both.

This recently happened to me.

My mother, a sprightly eighty three this year, has for some years now been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

And last month we pitched for an Alzheimer’s drug.

I thought this would be a breeze at the outset, after all we had lived with her forgetfulness, her muddles, her loss of vocabulary and her familiar coping mechanisms for some time now. It had almost become routine, sometimes even funny.

Despite the sad awfulness of this cruel disease, and as in poor taste as it might seem, there can be some humorous moments. The bleakness of the future can be forgotten in the bitter sweet surreality of discovering eggs in the airing cupboard.

Like many families, you watch one of the most important figures in your family go from a sparkling, glamorous, larger than life character to a diminished old lady who sometimes doesn’t make sense any more and sits in tha backseat on car journeys pointing out trees.

However I was unprepared for the impact of that thing we so easily call an ‘insight’.

One of our creative teams hit upon this idea that stopped me in my tracks and appealed to me as a creative for its simplicity and insight but also as a family member of a sufferer. Everyone involved agreed it was a great idea and we duly put it in to the pitch deck.

A couple of other good ideas joined it, tackling other aspects of the disease or carer perspective but we mostly agreed that the winning idea was that first idea.

At this point I was the Creative Director and oddly dispassionate. Get the copy right, get the type looking nice. Select the right shots, create the best images.

And then came the pitch rehearsals.

At our agency we place great value in these, get it well rehearsed and with a simple message and well…… let’s not give too much away.

Anyway, as I started to describe the thinking behind the concept I became rather overwhelmed.

For the first time and in what seemed a ludicrously random moment I began to sob.

Like most adult men, with years of conditioning that big boys don’t cry, it was mostly a case of going silent. Trying to control the wobble in my throat.

(I’d like to be able to say that I am mostly hard as nails, but frankly I cry at quite a lot these days. Mostly happy things, pride in my kids that sort of thing, quite the wimp.)

I wiped my cheek with a forearm and suddenly got a grip.

No need to apologise.

Well, that’s that done with.

Yet at the pitch, my big worry was that I would be overcome with emotion once more.

Cut to the big day.

There were fifteen potential clients looking on, waiting for some pearls of wisdom to sprout from my mouth about the ideas projected on the screen. Then there was this tightening in the throat, a moment slightly longer than a pause, slightly shorter than an intermission.

I could sense Phil ready to jump up and take over, apologising for me as he swept me to my chair like a feeble old fool, a towel over my head as he mouthed a silent apology.

You don’t experience that kind of emotion when pitching for a consumer brand.

You’ll be glad to learn I managed to pull it back and carry on.

The rest of the team exhaled.

The thing about Alzheimer’s is that the slow diminishing of what makes the patient them –  is almost imperceptible.

It starts with an oddly normal remark. “You never told me that” when you know you did.

“You never showed me that” when you just did. Those easily dismissable events, the kind of thing that can be put down to old age or a ‘bad day’ will progress to not being able to put the kettle on or remember grandchildren’s names.

And beyond.

I write this, recognising fully I am not alone in this acute experience. We all have close family and friends who have battled cancer, who have lived with chronic disease, some who have survived, some not so fortunate.

But if you are thinking of making that change from consumer to pharmaland I can say this.

I worked in consumer adland for over twenty five years, I loved every minute. But I have never had an experience like this pitch and it somehow makes me realise, if I hadn’t already, that what we get to do on this side of the advertising channel is about a real life, a rawness, that adland can only dream of.

The ad contrarian himself, the legendary Bob Hoffman, talks about how little people really care about brands. Yes, if Coke went bust tomorrow people would get over it by the next day and start drinking Pepsi. Whatever we like to think of pharma’s marketing and it’s traditionally conservative creative campaigns, what we do has authenticity.

A car can never compete, a supermarket can only dream of the raw impact of a pharma brand on a patient’s quality of life.

We are lucky to be a part of this sector.

And the pitch?

Inspite of, or possibly because of this unique experience, (and of course not forgetting the whole team’s contribution) we did in fact win.

And for my part, I have my Mum to thank for that.