Lauren Pollina of 21GRAMS on the Role of Humor in Healthcare

Plus, why it's time to stop talking about health like it's a specialty

With over 15 years in healthcare advertising, Lauren has helped shape brands from the tiny to the blockbuster, from launches to LOEs, from medications that treat terminal diseases to lotions that can make for a less stressful bathtime experience for new moms. 

Last year, Lauren became the first ever executive creative director of 21GRAMS New York. In 2018, she was one of the agency's first creative hires, helping to lay the groundwork for its rapid success. In just three and a half years, 21GRAMS has grown from 40 people to over 400 and was named one of the top five healthcare agencies in the world. Lauren co-created the reality series that was featured at the Behind the Work stage at Cannes in 2019. She led the teams behind the agency's first Clio Health and Cannes Lion wins in 2021. And she became a mom for the second time in 2020, so, you know, no slouch there. 

Lauren has nearly completed her pandemic bingo card, supplementing a pandemic baby with a move to the suburbs, a new dog, a brief banana bread period, and a bad habit of waving awkwardly at the end of Zoom meetings. 

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


Lauren, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I grew up in, and now live in, the suburbs of New York City. My first job ever was in Hartsdale, New York, at a pet cemetery. I was 13. I planted flowers. That has nothing to do with the original question. But I didn't want to just end it at the fact that I grew up in and live in the suburbs of New York City.

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

A hot tip from my sister, Kris. She was leaving her job as a writer at a healthcare ad agency. I was fresh outta college and working at a science publishing company. My portfolio consisted almost exclusively of excerpts from my undergraduate thesis about the neurobiology of Tourette's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I don't even think my mom would have read those samples. But for some unknown reason, that agency gave me a shot as a junior copywriter.

Something people might not know about the healthcare industry.

This one may be surprising: More people working in the healthcare industry were born on a Friday than professionals who work in any other industry. In fairness, I made that up, so I can understand why people might not know that.

A recent project you're proud of. 

As a working mom of two, I'd have to choose my 1-year-old son, Archer Thomas Swann, as my proudest recent project. I played a central part in the delivery of that one. It's a project that truly has legs. And a head and shoulders. And knees and toes. Knees and toes.

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

I'm not a very emotional person. So when a piece of work brings me to tears, it stays with me. The SickKids "Moms Vs. Hard Days" by Cossette Toronto does that. The work for SickKids is consistently incredible. But this one hit hardest. For me, it's the moment midway through (around 1:07) … "Everything is fine." We all have said that to ourselves at some point or another. Hearing it in this context, from a mother of a sick child, makes that phrase first deeply relatable and then entirely unfathomable. 

SickKids | Moms Vs. Hard Days
A major challenge facing healthcare advertisers today.

Bad healthcare advertising. Don't do it. You know what I'm talking about. If you find yourself leaning backwards and cringing while you're working, move away from the Wacom. And email me—lauren.pollina@21gramsny.com.

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

In the past, comedy has been an awkward line to cross in pharma. Especially when it comes to serious illness. But if we're trying to reach people in a way that really relates, I think we have a responsibility to make it OK to laugh.

When my dad was going through chemo (many years ago), he was pulled over while driving home from dinner. As the cop walked up to his window, my father took off his baseball cap, revealed his newly bald head, glanced back at my sisters and I in the backseat, smiled widely and said "TIME FOR THE CHEMO CARD!" He told the cop we were coming back from the hospital. And yes, the "chemo card" worked. He didn't get a ticket.

Humor isn't always right in healthcare. But it isn't never right. I think a lot of the work that is pushing the industry forward right now makes talking about illness feel more normal. And sometimes laughing can make the worst things feel more normal.

How healthcare can attract more creative talent.

We need to stop making healthcare feel separate from any other part of the advertising industry. Bill Bowerman famously said "if you have a body, you are an athlete." I think we have now all realized that if you have a body, you are a patient.

Whether or not healthcare was on your mind when you started your 2020 resolutions, it certainly was by the time March turned into April that year. It's important for all of us in this field to stop talking about health like it's a specialty. It's the thing we all have in common. And when push came to shove, when the pandemic hit, we sacrificed everything to protect our health. We gave up plans, jobs, vacations, weddings and so much more, for our collective safety. There's more creative opportunity in healthcare because it matters to every single person. And it matters more than anything.

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

Oof. Probably applying for a job in healthcare advertising. I'm a one-trick pony. Or maybe I'd just raise ponies. That sounds fun. 

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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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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