Wunderman Thompson Health's Trevor Sloan on the Creative Pursuit of Wellbeing

Seeking fewer eye-rolls, more raised eyebrows

After 26 years in advertising, Trevor Sloan has done it all—building successful brands in practically every industry. For the last 12 years, he's applied his expertise to healthcare. Although his work has garnered well over 200 awards, from the Clios, Clio Health, Cannes Lions, The One Show, Communication Arts, the Effies, and many others, he insists his best work is ahead of him.

As EVP, group creative director at Wunderman Thompson Health, Trevor sees a bright future for both healthcare and non-healthcare marketers who understand the value of wellness—for their brands and their audiences. 

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


Trevor, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I actually live where I grew up, in the burbs of D.C. It's a smallish market, but I don't feel "held back." My career has taken me around the world, and before Covid I spent half my life in New York, which is just a couple of hours by train. I've always believed great work can come from anywhere. And in the Covid era, that's becoming truer every day.

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

To be honest, it was more of an arranged marriage than a mutual attraction. But I've learned to love it intensely. After working outside of health for many years, I got a job at an agency that had a few health clients mixed in with several automotive and telecom brands. Our office just got so good at healthcare that the phone kept ringing. And today we're (almost) all health.

What I've fallen in love with is the incredibly rich creative opportunities that I didn't even know were there. As an outsider, you see a lot of eye-roller-type ideas, or non-ideas. Lots of generic images of people doing random activities—shopping, fishing, barbecuing—accompanied by watered-down product claims. But look at the industry's best work, and you see so much more.

There isn't more fertile emotional ground than our own wellbeing, or that of our loved ones. And if you can pluck those emotional strings in a genuine way, you can truly change people's lives. I've been able to inspire people who face the horrors of multiple sclerosis to greet each day with enthusiasm. I've taught people how to heal children who are recovering from emotional trauma. And yes, I've helped people find new medicines for what ails them, while reminding them of possible side effects. But even that doesn't have to make people roll their eyes. If you have a strong idea, you can strum a deeper chord.

Something people might not know about the healthcare industry.

That it's actually full of nice people. I think the public has the impression that healthcare companies are where the school bully from their childhood ended up working: "Gimme your lunch money or suffer." I'm sure you can find some people like that in any industry, healthcare included. But remember that super smart, nice kid in your class who was always saying, "When I grow up, I'm gonna cure cancer"? They probably work in this industry, too. From my experience, there are far more good kids than bullies.

A healthcare project you were impressed by recently.

"The Tough Turban" isn't really billed as a healthcare idea, but I think it is one. In fact, I think it's among a growing number of ideas from non-health brands that leverage health to connect with new audiences. More on that later.

What I love most is its genuineness. When you imagine Harley-Davidson's key demographic, you conjure up images of working-class white guys wearing copious amounts of facial hair, tattoos and bandanas. You don't necessarily think of Sikhs wearing turbans. But Harley made a conscious effort to embrace diversity, proving to the world that riding a Harley isn't about your race or religion—or your choice of headwear. It's about the freedom of the open road. So, instead of just running ads showing Sikhs, they found a way to help Sikh riders experience that freedom in a healthier way.

Tough Turban: an open-source design made for motorcycling
A major challenge facing healthcare advertisers today.

I think our biggest challenge is the oldest one in the book. Clutter. Breaking through it takes an incredible amount of work from every part of an agency.

Make no mistake. Your work will be tested in focus groups, scrutinized by devil's advocates, and shopped around to family members. And even when your idea tests well, someone out there will tell you that adding a famous song, or a happy couple walking a dog on a beach, will make it more relatable—everybody loves that stuff, don't they? The problem is, they do. That's why almost every brand is doing that sort of thing. What's worse, adding too much of it can eviscerate the idea you started with.

To do something different, I think we need to get ahead of it. All of us. There should be nothing wrong with an honest conversation with clients, before the project even kicks off, about the importance of a differentiating idea and the pitfalls that could sink it. This is a conversation that every department should have a vested interest in. Unique ideas aren't just created for creative reasons. They're created for strategic reasons, ROI reasons, timing and budget reasons, internal politics reasons, interagency reasons, and a hundred more, most of which can be supported by data.

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

Despite the added clutter, I love that healthcare marketing is coming from everywhere these days. Not just pharma companies, insurance companies and the other usual suspects, but brands and organizations that aren't normally associated with healthcare at all. Harley is one example, but you'll find amazing work coming from retailers, tech companies … you name it.

I think what they're figuring out is that nothing is more personal or valuable to people than their health, which makes it a great way for brands to connect with audiences. One of my favorite quotes is from John C. Jay, who said brands need to "stop trying to be authentic, and just be authentic." I'm not sure how many marketers have heard that quote, but the message seems to be sinking in. The best marketers aren't just running ads that say they care about their customers. The best marketers are actually proving it through their actions, with amazing ideas that have a real impact.

How healthcare can attract more creative talent.

Better work. Bigger ideas. More exciting, more memorable campaigns and pieces that truly engage. Fewer eye-rolls, more raised eyebrows. The best people want to work for organizations that know how to do great work. Yes, those people want money, too. But they know money is the result of greatness, not the precursor to it.

It's a bit of a snowball effect: The better your work is, the better your people are. And the better your people, the better your work. If your entire organization believes in the power of ideas, and supports them every day, the snowball will start rolling.

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

I'm not sure, but I hope it'd be something creative. I write and record music. I wrote a novel once. I love making films and pieces of art. Those things usually don't pay that well, but I might have a go at them before settling on something more sensible.

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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