Concept Diagnosis

Taking the pulse of the worst & best in healthcare advertising

Month: November 2014

Oncologists Get Their Orca On

KILLERwhaleCOMETRIQ is indicated for the treatment of patients with progressive, metastatic medullary thyroid cancer. Prognosis is poor when the cancer has metastasized beyond the thyroid gland. In clinical studies, COMETRIQ helped to delay the growth of MTC tumors in some people and shrink MTC tumors in others.

The creative teams were tasked to bring COMETRIQ’s unique triple action MOA to life. Somewhere between the first internal creative review, several rounds of client presentations and multi-city qualitative one-on-ones, the creative process got beached.

Would you trust Jacques Cousteau with your thyroid cancer?

The first person I think of to treat thyroid cancer is a marine biologist. Why else would I see three killer whales attacking a school of fish in this communication to endocrinologists and oncologists? Killer Whales? Cancer? How is it relevant? If Jacques Cousteau were alive, he would explain to us that killer whales are sometimes called the wolves of the sea, because they hunt in groups like wolf packs. Large school of herring are often caught using carousel feeding – the killer whales force the herring into a tight ball by releasing bursts of bubbles and then slap the ball with their tail flukes killing up to a dozen fish at a time. “Wow, much like the way COMETRIQ inhibits the activity of MET; VEGFR-1, -2, and -3; RET; and other receptor tyrosine kinases, in vitro!” said no one ever, except maybe the client’s medical director and brand manager.

While there hasn’t been another “killer whale” ad in pharma (at least none in captivity), why jump to borrowed interest? Did the creative director approve this or was the metaphor thrust upon the agency by the client? In today’s “legally driven, risk-adverse, keep the client happy so we keep the business, dumb it down for doctors because they don’t want to think when they see an ad” environment, it is very tempting to succumb to the mediocre metaphor. As creatives and as agencies, we must persevere to create provocative and engaging communication and educate clients to its benefits.

Now, if you have to use a borrowed interest cliché or metaphor, push it – put a little spin and surprise on it. In 2005, TITRACE ran a “Whale” ad of its own so engaging it would warm even Captain Ahab’s heart.

TITRACETITRACE was an ACE inhibitor that also reduced the risk of MI, stroke or CV death in vulnerable patients. The main message the creative team had to deliver was: TITRACE saves lives. Rather than depict patients in a somber tone to reflect the seriousness of the disease, the agency used humor to create more impact. Under a call to action headline, “Save the Whale”, was an image of an overweight patient in the bathtub spouting water from his mouth. “Save the Whale” was the first in a campaign of overweight patients as endangered species, followed by Save the Panda, Penguin, Walrus and Tiger. Jon Watson, the TITRACE Creative Director at Lowe Azure UK put it simply, “A big message, softly spoken, often has more impact than one rammed down the reader’s throat.”

It was brilliant, but not without risk…risk of offending doctors and overweight patients, and risk of pissing off Aventis. The client felt it was worth taking a chance and market research confirmed that it was very relevant to physicians. As a result, the campaign had an 80% spontaneous recall with docs and the brand exceeded sales.

Save the Panda

Save the Panda


Save the Walrus

Unfortunately if the TITRACE campaign were presented today, 10 years later, it probably would never make it past the client. In the lawsuit-happy world we live in, where the easily offended use social media as a pulpit, it is doubtful that there is a brand manager willing to take the risk of calling their patient a whale and then seeing the outrage trending on Twitter the next day (Calling them pandas? Maybe. Everyone likes cuddly pandas). And remember, the Med Legal Gods don’t like definitive words like “Save” and “Proven”. The headline would be modified to read, “May Save the Whale” or “Assist the Cetacean-like Patient” and the tagline, “Proven to save endangered lives” would become too long to be considered a tag.

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.12.26 PMYes children, today’s creative teams wear med legal handcuffs, but that’s no excuse not to strive for brilliance and at least try turning a metaphor on its head to engage your audience. Don’t let your creativity become an endangered species!

Giving MS the finger



GILENYA was a transformational advance as the first oral treatment for people with relapsing multiple sclerosis. With no more painful injections to take on a regular basis, patients could forget about their disease while its efficacy got them back to leading active lives. Novartis launched GILENYA in 2010, and was followed by Sanofi’s AUBAGIO and Biogen Idec’s TECFIDERA.



As a game changing oral therapy, it was logical that the GILENYA launch campaign focus on the convenience of the pill, as well as the benefits of its efficacy. The global HCP communication depicted an active patient viewed through a visually prominent opening between two fingers holding the pill. It was a new perspective on MS therapy.

Physicians around the world recognized that this icon conveyed efficacy and tolerability delivered by an oral treatment. The DTC campaign continued the strong branding with its “Possibilities” ad. Here we see the same hand from the HCP campaign holding the pill as the letter “I” in the headline, with the patient in the background. GILENYA makes a strong case study of true global branding, spanning multiple cultures and audiences.



One of the basic ground rules of concepting is to analyze the creative competitive landscape – what visuals and icons are your competitors owning and what branding and messaging are physicians exposed to. This way you can avoid branding repetition and confusion and ensure that your brand is positioned uniquely.


HCP launch ad

So then in 2013 along comes TECFIDERA, third oral to the MS market. The HCP launch campaign was your basic announcement ad with branded colors and capsule shot. A year later, a DTC ad appeared touting TECFIDERA as the number one prescribed pill for relapsing MS with…wait for it…two giant fingers holding a green capsule simulating a bridge as a patient walks across it over a stream! TecfideradtcAt a quick glance, this could be another GILENYA ad. Was this intentional? Did the agency not do their homework? Did Biogen Idec not care? Yes, it’s been three years since the iconic GILENYA launch, but has that time wiped the branding from the audience’s minds? And even if it has, this concept still feels like borrowed goods. On principal alone, why would you use a direct competitor’s visual icon? Remember, if it feels like it’s been done before, it probably was. If I was Novartis, I’d be calling the concept cops because they were robbed! I’m giving this TECFIDERA ad the finger – a thumbs down for unoriginality.

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