AbelsonTaylor's Richard How on the Pursuit of More Daring Healthcare Advertising

Plus, how the lines between health and other industries are blurring

Richard How, creative director at AbelsonTaylor, the Chicago-based health and wellness agency, is an award-winning creative leader with strong organizational and team management skills. He excels designing user-centric interactive environments for leading global brands and consistently delivers outstanding results in creative direction, interaction design, usability and interactive strategies. Rich is a conceptual thinker, accustomed to working within fast-paced team environments.

We spoke with Rich for our series Checkup, where we chat with leaders in the healthcare marketing space.


Rich, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I grew up in a small harbor town called Aberaeron on the west coast of Wales in the U.K. It's a beautiful, picturesque place with colorful Regency architecture. However, it was quite the culture shock when I moved to London in my late teens to attend art school. After graduating I remained in the city for a further 10 years building a career in consumer advertising. Eleven years ago, I moved to Chicago and now spend my days overlooking Belmont Harbor on Lake Michigan. It feels like I've traded one harbor view for another.

How you first got into healthcare marketing, and what attracted you to it.

My first introduction to healthcare marketing was during my first week living in Chicago. I was hired by AbelsonTaylor as a freelance art director. The task required designing a complex UI for a treatment stock management system in hospitals. Despite that not sounding like the sexiest introduction, I immediately found the complexity and science really interesting. That was quickly followed by further digital assignments and eventually campaign concepting. I was instantly hooked! The paragraphs of safety information and disclaimers didn't put me off in the slightest.

Something people might not know about the healthcare industry.

The thing that surprised me the most about moving from traditional consumer advertising to healthcare was the scope and possibilities of the projects. Even though I'd worked for brands like Nike and IBM in the past, budgets had always been a challenge. I was really blown away by the scale of possibilities healthcare campaigns offered and the access available to incredible artists wanting to be part of bringing these ideas to life.

A recent project you're proud of.

Most recently I've been working for a client that delivers lifesaving immunotherapy treatment to cancer patients that have lost all hope. Yescarta "This Is More than Hope, This Is Remission" was a campaign born from a revolutionary insight and a meeting with a patient advocate who's currently in remission. At first glance the campaign looks like a sad moment on a patient's cancer journey but look closer and you can see those are tears of joy. This highly charged moment of raw emotion was the result of being delivered the news of full remission. The best part of this campaign was seeing how well it resonated with its audience and how it helped move the needle to help patients find potentially a cure for their non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Someone else's project in healthcare that you were impressed by recently.

I recently saw this campaign McCann Shanghai produced for GSK. "Breath of Life" drives disease awareness for COPD in China. I loved how it used a simple phone app as a diagnostic tool that helped initiate action. However, it was the thought and complexity that delivered simplicity to the user I thought was outstanding. It used the cultural reference of ancient Asian blow paintings to build a breath-driven visual indicator of lung strength. This was achieved by converting sound waves from the phone microphone into the long volume of breath. This generates a bespoke tree image that gave instant feedback about the patient's lung health. These images could then be shared on social to help build awareness of the condition.

GSK | Breath of Life
A major challenge facing healthcare advertisers today.

One of the main challenges healthcare advertising faces is still the need to innovate and conceive further creative ways to reach patients and physicians. Especially if we look at mainstream media placements, healthcare advertising still has the tag of happy smiling patients overlaid with a host of potentially nasty side effects. I think having the bravery to be bold and convince clients of alternate contemporary methods and approaches is essential. We know a lot of the more traditional approaches still test well, which can give a false sense of security. However, the reality of cutting through the clutter in the real-world barrage of ads is something that's only getting more difficult. The only way to combat this is to champion more daring and intelligent campaigns that target the correct audience in an authentic and thought-provoking manner.

How healthcare can attract more creative talent.

Attracting fresh talent is something that's critical to the evolution of healthcare advertising. It sometimes has that chicken-and-egg dilemma attached to it. We need new talent to shake up the paradigm, but to do that we need to be creating beautiful and relevant work already to attract the best people. From a creative standpoint I always think it's showing the true scale of what you can create and difference you can make with a healthcare campaign. For example, the last two shoots I worked on used Sandro and Kurt Iswarienko, two highly regarded photographers who have a portfolio that reads as a who's who of A-list celebrity and sports stars. As a creative it feels pretty good standing in a Hollywood studio working with such incredible talent. Bolted onto that are the amazing results these campaigns deliver, reaching people who are in desperate need of hope. I think that whole experience would be very attractive to anyone thinking of working in our industry. Another factor is as a society we are a lot more health focused now. Most people seem to have a gym membership—whether they use it or not is a different matter—and care about what they put into their bodies. Opening up what's been historically labelled "pharma" advertising to a more holistic health and wellness approach can help attract the next generation of health conscious creatives, particularly focusing on the benefits we are providing our audience in comparison to lifestyle products.

One thing about how healthcare is evolving that you're excited about.

The thing that really excites me about the evolution of healthcare is how the boundaries between industries are getting less defined. Pharma manufacturers are competing with more retailers because of the shift and growth in the online landscape. This will continue to be amplified as investment in healthcare will undoubtedly continue to grow. An example of this is how the rise in mental health awareness has enabled consumer brands to get involved in the conversation by developing wellness apps and other digital tools to help manage this condition. This can only encourage innovation in the way we market and approach our audiences going forward.

What you wouldbe doing if you weren't in healthcare marketing.

I imagine I'd still be designing things! I have a love for all things art and culture based. Architecture has always been an area that's interested me, so maybe I'd have a hand in designing one of the latest skyscrapers shaping the Chicago skyline! Style and fashion are my other passions, so developing a streetwear brand is something I still aspire to do.

Checkup is our new weekly Muse series, publishing on Thursdays, where we chat with leaders in healthcare marketing. To learn more about Checkup or our Clio Health program, please get in touch.

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Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a senior broadcast journalism student at the University of Colorado Boulder and a contributor to Muse by Clio.

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