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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Life In A Pharma Agency: The Ninth Circle Of Hell, Or Merely The Eighth?

Life In A Pharma Agency: The Ninth Circle Of Hell, Or Merely The Eighth?

Posted on July 31, 2004 and read 8,427 times

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I spent many years writing ads at consumer agencies. I got to write ads and shoot TV spots and go on nice trips and win some awards. And then I decided to do the thing that, apparently, no mentally stable creative person has ever wanted to do, which is to write pharmaceutical ads. Full time. With lots of direct mail on the side.

The younger ad people of my acquaintance, all keenly ambitious, couldn’t believe that anyone would actually choose to do this. Thus, they assumed that I’d had no choice. They felt bad for me. They asked, “How’s it going?” in the solicitous tone of voice I imagine will someday be used by those asking if my incontinence pad needs changing.

But I did choose this, and I would choose it again, because of all the things that make pharma and direct different from general agency life.

The first thing to be said about life in a pharmaceutical or direct agency is that everybody’s really nice. There’s none of the cutthroat competition that goes on in general agencies, no backbiting, no whispered suggestions that you cribbed your ideas from an old One Show annual. When you work in pharma or direct, nobody ever says nasty things about you.

But of course, that’s because nobody envies you.

Most aspiring creatives want to work in a general agency. General is where you do big national campaigns. General is where they buy you tickets to awards shows, and pay for your drinks afterwards. General is where you go on 10-day shoots in New Zealand and South Africa. General is where you use your new Prada slides to kick your recycling bin across the room while shrieking at the account director, “You’re not here to BUY my work, you miserable sack of shit, you’re here to SELL it!”

In a direct or pharma agency, things work a little differently. Yes, you can do TV in a direct agency, but you’ll be sharing the screen with a 1-800 number the size of the Hoover Dam. Yes, you get nice photo budgets for pharma print, but by the time you load in all your legal copy, your CA-worthy shot is down to the size of a garment care label.

When you work in pharma or direct, people will ask what you thought of the Bessies or the Marketing Awards and you’ll answer, wittily, “I didn’t know they were on.” Of course, pharma and direct agencies have their own award shows. It’s just that no one’s ever heard of them.

So why would anyone choose to work in pharma or direct? Only to have more of a life. Elsewhere on this website, the legendary David Droga speaks of having slept at the office two nights a week at the start of his career, and of a social life that was “rubbish.” Anyone who seriously pursues a mainstream agency career can expect to have at least one big fight with Significant Other over cold dinners, cancelled plans and postponed vacations.

By contrast, I have most evenings and weekends free. I have time for a home life, for fitness, for guitar lessons, for friends. None of this was possible before.

But what about awards? We’re told that awards make the long hours all worthwhile, but even that’s debatable. To remain on the industry’s radar screen, you must repeat this year’s success next year. And the year after. And the year after that. Your reward for all those long hours is…even longer hours! Not being in contention, for whatever reason, obliges you to engage in public self-loathing until the situation is corrected. But I can tell you from experience that the euphoria of a big win doesn’t last nearly as long as it took you to create the damn ad in the first place.

And here’s the kicker: The humbling reality of our business is that our very best efforts and longest-running campaigns have only temporary value. Ten years from now, your tough, edgy, kickass, Gold-Pencil-winning ad stands a very good chance of looking corny and twee. If you don’t believe me, try flipping through an old annual sometime. The passage of time is as unkind to ads as it is to the people who make them.

And speaking of the passage of time, pharma and direct give you your best shot at making ads for as many years as you want to. They are perhaps the only branches of advertising in which your experience and maturity have more value than your grasp of the Zeitgeist. With pharma or direct, you actually stand a chance of choosing retirement in your sixties, rather than having it chosen for you in your forties.

But after nearly twenty years in this business, I know one thing for certain.

I haven’t persuaded you one bit.

You still want the Cannes doorstop. The unsmiling publicity shot. The account people who know better than to question your expense reports. The conveyor belt of supplier swag heading straight to your desk.


But please let me suggest that it’s still a good idea to know how to do pharma and direct. Life offers certain lessons our parents could never have taught us. (For me, the lesson was, “Don’t go on eBay when you’re drunk.”) In advertising, the lessons concern the value of humility and flexibility. Knowing how to do pharma or direct and being a good sport about it will keep your career going till you decide for yourself that you’re done.

Suzanne Pope is Creative Director at Healthwise Creative Resource Group, a healthcare ad agency in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Archive and Communication Arts, and she is the winner of a One Show Silver Pencil. This article expands on material that originally appeared in an Ask Jancy column.




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