Changing perception of healthcare advertising: Interview with with Brad Yale

Interview by Paris Taylor, Head of X4 Communications.

Healthcare advertising has in the past been quickly labelled “a void of creativity”. With Covid-19 turning everything on its head and forcing businesses across all industries to digitize if they want to survive, I wanted to find out from an expert in the industry, what they think of these preconceptions.

I interviewed Brad Yale, VP Director of Digital Strategy at DDB Health who has worked in the healthcare advertising for the last 5 years’ having previously worked in web hosting. Brad shared some fascinating insights and thoughts on the happenings in healthcare advertising.

DDB Health are a global healthcare advertising agency that embrace new ideas and diverse points of view, use creativity as a force for good health.

What got you into healthcare advertising?

I was working in the web hosting and cloud computing space for a few years and then I moved to Pearson, where I was doing the same backend work just for a different sector of the business. Pearson were downsizing when I was hired and I’d realised that I was going to be looked at as a non-essential employee so I started looking for my next gig. I figured at the time that if I could clearly explain web hosting and make someone understand it, then I could do the same with translating pharmaceutical and medical terminology to HCPs and patients.

To be totally honest with you, it was complete intellectual pursuit. I thought to myself “If I can do this one thing, then I can do that as well”. I had raw digital skills to work in any industry it was just a matter of figuring it out and that’s exactly what it was.

Are you glad you made the move to healthcare advertising?

It’s essentially more of a question of whether healthcare advertising is more or less creative than working for a consumer brand. I enjoy it because I’ve worked on the patient side and now I’m working on the HCP rare oncology side.

Pharma companies have MLR reviews and lots of legal processes, but I enjoy the process of understanding where we are in the box and how to make the box a little bigger without exploding it.

It’s about taking strategies that your legal team allow and then making them interesting in terms of execution. I enjoy that mechanism of figuring out the strategy and logistics behind something, and then making it interesting or useful to a particular audience or segment.

Do healthcare companies need to use more consumer communication tactics to encourage the public to interact more with their brands, in the way they might interact with a consumer brand?

Agencies are fragmented. You have the patient side who are directly appealing to consumers with more consumer facing drugs which you might see a TV commercial for, but you don’t see a straight to HCP commercial on TV because it doesn’t work that way. The tactics to get there are different.

If you’re going to appeal to a wider consumer base with a cholesterol drug for example, then you’re going to use more consumer facing tactics whether it’s a commercial or an Instagram video where you know your audience are going to be.

Most of the public want to know that if they take the drug you’re advertising, they’re going to be healthier. They are not so much concerned with the physiology of the drug, so what you present to them is much more of a consumer “Your life is going to be better” approach. Whereas HCPs want to know how the drug works and the side effects. They’re interested in data over emotion so it’s a different strategy. The answer is yes but it depends upon the drug and the implication.

Focusing on patient campaigns, do you think healthcare agencies are behind with the times in terms of digital strategy and do you think there’s anything from the consumer world that healthcare advertising could make more use of?

From a tactics point of view, they’re kind of leaning into each other.

On the patient side, most agencies will look at it and say “We’re going to send an email, on the website there’s going to be banners driving you somewhere and there’s going to be a live convention.” They’ll use social as a driver whether that’s an organic presence or paid across Facebook, TikTok or Snapchat.

Traditionally, HCP brands were all about clinical journals and medical studies using closed HCP platforms. Now, you see a lot of HCP facing agencies using more public channels like Facebook, Twitter and podcasts because they’re learning that doctors are people too so you can still interact with them by advertising on a podcast even if that podcast is about say ESPN daily or politics. You still put an ad there if you know your audience listen to that kind of stuff.

Do you think consumers want more rational drivers or emotional drivers in healthcare advertising?

From a consumer point of view, it depends on what it is you’re suffering from. If you have a lot of heart issues that might present as a heart attack, the drug for that person might need to be more skewed by saying “80% of people who take this have a better life outcome.” But, if it’s something more common they just might say “Right take this pill and your A1C will be perfectly fine.”

On the other side of it, we always think HCPs need the data to say “The efficacy of this drug is going to work” but they also need the emotional side of it too. Not because they need to tie emotion to taking the drug but because they need the emotional side to be able to talk to a patient.

Both need different aspects, and both need them in a different percentage.

Do you feel the increase in misinformation around Covid-19 has changed consumer perceptions of healthcare advertising?

I don’t think its impacted people’s trust of medication or treatment. I do think it has shifted the market though. Not because of people’s lack of trust or ability to treat but more because we’re talking to everyone through a camera.

Everything has been turned on its head as it has to be a digital tactic now. It’s much more about a digital customer journey now, than it ever has been.

I’m working on a pitch at the moment in the diagnostics space where traditionally you would get a diagnostic test in-person to get a better outcome of what it is you’re dealing with. The entire pitch right now is about how because of Covid-19, no one wants to go into an office, so how do you get the message across that diagnostic testing is still pertinent to your health outcomes? It’s about thinking of the different ways to communicate that message to get around the fact people don’t want to be there in person.

If healthcare advertising is moving forwards in a more digital world, how do you envisage that in terms of the skills and experience required?

My boss always jokes that working in digital is kind of like running naked in a crowd because no matter what you do, every mechanism you put into the market is trackable and it has to be trackable. I spend most of my hours working on KPI plans building content strategies so every button on every website is trackable and I can understand what is working and what’s not to identify the best foot forward.

You need people to understand the metrics and what it actually means. It’s more than just having a digital native skillset. We need people who can think constructively, sit-down and ask the question “Does this make sense?” It’s about having a critical thinking skillset to say “Is this the right solution for the client given their budgets and goals?” and to think about the best way to do something by looking at how it performed and the strategy behind it.

What do you think of the label sometimes given to healthcare advertising that pharmaceutical companies are behind with the times?

Traditionally pharma companies have been 5-10 years’ behind, but certain companies are doing everything they can to erase that.

I professionally think that a lot of that comes from the brand side. Some pharma companies are doing everything they can to internalize and build proper digital teams, and those pharma companies are the ones doing more innovative things online using different communities and tactics. They’re actively saying “Let’s try to make it better” which is both an upside and downside to an agency.

Are there any ways in which you think pharmaceutical companies and agencies could work more effectively together?

There’s an unwritten rule in the industry that projects are only successful when the scope of work manages to be beneficial to both people – the agency and the company.

I honestly think that everything an agency and company does has to be looked at in the lines of their business model and how it can evolve. The business model has to evolve for both the agency and the company to evolve in anything they are doing otherwise you’ll get the same pickups over and over again.

I really think the agencies and companies who figure this out and make that successful, will be the ones who are trying different things and able to push to the boundaries because they’re not looking at it as just “in the box”. They’re trying to explode that and figure out different ways to do things. That’s the next step in this.

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