Area 23's Najwa Sebbahi on the Expanding Creativity in Healthcare

Her work on PNH, plus how to recruit more creatives to the industry

Najwa Sebbahi is VP, creative director at Area 23, the healthcare agency in New York. With over 11 years of experience in healthcare advertising at agencies including FCB Health, CDM and Centron, Najwa has had the chance to create and lead the branding and creative of many brands in various disease states, winning a few awards along the way.

Najwa believes that presenting data in a way that's not only clear but has emotional pull can have a meaningful effect on patients' treatment experience and influence HCPs' treatment decisions. She feels privileged to be at the forefront of breakthrough science and to work closely with patient communities and healthcare professionals to bring their experiences and stories to life. 

When not trying to find creative solutions for marketing problems, Najwa is either lost in some old city looking for delicious local food or enjoying some playtime with her two daughters. 

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


Najwa, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I grew up in Morocco and I moved to the U.S. at age 15. I lived in Brooklyn for many years, and I loved the proximity to diverse food choices and cultural experiences. I now live in Long Island, a bike ride away from Jones Beach. The boardwalk is lovely in the spring and summer.

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

I graduated shortly after the economic downturn of 2008-09, so I was fortunate to land an internship at Draft FCB Health (now FCB Health). Lucky for me, I was placed in Tim Hawkey's team. Tim [now CCO of Area 23] is very passionate about advertising, his energy was contagious, and he encouraged the team to really push for creative solutions. I was impressed by the talent in the team and the work produced by the agency, and when I was offered a full time job, I didn't hesitate. As time went on, I became fascinated with the scientific breakthroughs, plus there was always a new business challenge, a new indication or disease to solve for.

In 2016-17, I had the opportunity to work with Carolyn O'Neill [currently CCO of Centron] on the launch of Spinraza (nusinersen), the first disease modifying therapy for spinal muscular atrophy. This was a pivotal moment for me, as I discovered I deeply cared about how my work reflected the family experience and I realized that brands for rare diseases are closest to my heart. 

Something people might not know about the healthcare industry.

The healthcare industry is evolving, and there's tremendous competition between brands for face-to-face interactions with healthcare professionals; it's limited and hard to get. As a result, we see our clients' needs for non-personal creative solutions consistently growing and growing. The pandemic forced us to explore non-traditional ways to promote treatments and ushered in more requests for digital and social channels to get the brand story across. A digital-first approach is becoming the norm for most brands.

A recent project you're proud of.

In March 2020, Centron was preparing for launch of a new treatment for PNH (paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria), a rare disease that, even when treated, is associated with anemia, fatigue and pain. We were tasked with bringing to light the patient experience and elevating awareness among HCPs that patients continue to suffer from significant disease burdens while on current therapies. 

The campaign creative required the presence of a few people in one room. At the time it was the height of the pandemic, and potentially exposing people, especially a child, to Covid over hours of shooting with others in a closed location was out of the question. The solution we came up with was to create the characters using the latest 3-D CGI technology, and our clients really welcomed the idea. 

We partnered with a leading studio that specializes in the craft of creating human figures in CGI. The production was longer and more complex than a traditional photo shoot/CGI post-production, but creating everything from scratch gave us more creative freedom and the ability to customize every detail for each of the different global markets. This was the first time that I've seen this technology—creating hyper-realistic humans—used in healthcare advertising; it's certainly a new territory. I feel proud that I was able to do it all remotely, and no humans were harmed in the making of this creative.

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

"Khabazte" created by McCann Paris for the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation is a great example of how simplicity and the use of true customer insight is all you need to create effective advertising. Breast cancer screening remains very low in the Middle East due to many factors, including lack of awareness, high costs of healthcare and the cultural limitations that make the subject a taboo. "Khabazte" brilliantly uses cultural insights to break through all those barriers and get the message across to the women who need it the most. It's a video of a local woman sharing a recipe, and using the motion of kneading the dough—in the shape of breasts—to teach other women how to perform monthly self-exams. The video caught on in social media and was adopted by other cultures with similar issues.

The Bread Exam
A major challenge facing healthcare advertisers today.

In the consumer world, integrated customer data allows for precise targeting and engagement. In healthcare, patient privacy considerations and fragmented data sets can make engagement and targeting more challenging. Further, in my experience, market research is often not diverse enough to provide a full picture into the patient insights, experience and drivers.

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

Our clients are asking for creative ideas that can break through the clutter and don't want to see anything that is perceived as cliché in healthcare. I also believe that wearable health tracking technologies, prescription apps and gene therapies are all areas of development in healthcare where we can expand the boundaries of creativity in the next few years and really integrate the concepts of "healthcare" and "pharma."

How healthcare can attract more creative talent.

It's important to invite creative talent to events where they can learn about opportunities in healthcare advertising firsthand, ask questions, and see how truly meaningful and creative our work can be. We need more open-door portfolio nights where creatives who are looking to switch can learn more about the healthcare agencies and how they operate. Another approach that can help is having more advertising healthcare professionals give guest lectures on advertising for healthcare at colleges and universities; it's the best way to expose more young creative talent to this career path.

What would you be doing if you weren't in healthcare marketing?

As child, I was gifted with an ability and love of drawing—I won every competition I entered! I'm pretty sure if I wasn't an advertising creative, I would be a professional fine artist, specifically a mixed media artist. In a way, I would still be doing conceptual work, it would just be with a little more freedom.

Checkup is our 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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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. He is the former creative editor of Adweek.

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