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Cannes Special: The Akali Brothers on their 'Agency of the Year' title

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | June 22, 2016
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Who says healthcare advertising can't be cool? An interview with Amit and Praful Akali about what the title means for Medulla Communications and brands in the Indian pharma segment.

Healthcare communications agency Medulla Communications has won the coveted Healthcare Agency of the Year award at Cannes this year. 'The Akali Brothers' (no, not a rock band... but rock stars, sure) are riding the wave.

Praful is founder-director of Medulla Communications, and Amit is managing partner and creative head of What's Your Problem?, a digitally-inclined brand solutions firm he launched on the cusp of 2014-15, after ending his four-year-long stint at Grey.

Praful Akali (extreme left) and Amit Akali (second from right) pick up the Healthcare Agency of the Year trophy at Cannes

A lot of the work that comes out of these two shops is integrated at the back-end and is jointly created by Amit and Praful's respective teams. Put together, the Akalis lead around 80-90 employees.

The name of Praful's eight-year-old firm reminds me of a picture of the medulla oblongata, a part of the human central nervous system, in my biology textbook in school. Maybe that was the idea. But I didn't ask him that. Instead, I asked him, and Amit, a bunch of questions around their recent French accolade.

Amit and Praful Akali at Cannes

Glory, say Zen-lovers, is transient, but wins like these have a ripple effect that benefits both the agency and the market it operates in. "What does this win mean for Medulla?" we asked Praful, in an attempt to give some linguistic representation to these proverbial ripples.

"It's a credential builder for us on the Indian business front. But as an independent agency working out of India, this is the biggest international recognition possible. So we really want to use this to get international business... Not just the small projects. We want to get our hands on the big international work out there, work that was in a way out of reach thus far... that's the dream."

Medulla has been working with several international clients but this business is a small slice of the overall work the agency does. Last year, after finishing third in the healthcare agency race at Cannes, Praful realised that while business was good on the Indian healthcare front, the real bridge to overseas accounts would materialise if his team churned more pieces of communication that are comparable to "typical mainline creative work," something he believes his winning creatives this year have helped accomplish.

While TV and print briefs from overseas clients may not fall into Medulla's basket just yet, what Praful means by "international work" comprises a lot of direct marketing work with medical representatives, work across digital platforms and strategic work for brands looking to adapt global communication for specific target markets - the kind of work that's easy to do remotely.

Moreover, this will give him the "license to have a larger impact, to do things our way. Earlier there were constraints..." And of course, not to forget - the greater good. Praful hopes this win will put Indian healthcare advertising on the map and "open the international floodgates for Indian healthcare advertising."

He also hopes this will get "Indian healthcare and pharma clients to appreciate the role of advertising a lot more," and inspire Indian agencies - in this space and outside - to gun for ambitious titles like Agency of the Year and not just look to win Lions and Grand Prix Awards.

Compared to other markets, where does Indian healthcare branding stand? Globally, pharma communication, insists Praful, requires specialist advertising agencies. Across the world, there are many markets just waiting to be "cracked" by creative firms positioned as "healthcare agencies." While a lot of "mainline creative agencies" do create work in the health and wellness space, through their consumer healthcare accounts, the need of the hour is, undoubtedly, the specialist, we gather.

Can healthcare advertising be sexy?

Given the nature of the segment, crafting communication, of both the B2B and B2C kind, in the healthcare and pharma space can bring with it a certain degree of morbidity and seriousness. Even so, is creativity in this space dragging its feet more than it ought to? "Yes," says Praful, "there have been constraints in this segment."

But ever since the awards authorities at Cannes launched the Health Lions category (in 2014), agencies have stepped up their game and cast the "typical pharma, healthcare" type of communication aside. "Things are changing, across the world. Executionally, a lot of this year's winning healthcare campaigns are at par with 'the mainline creative work'. The ads are cool, they have 'attitude', and have the creative reach required... the game has changed in just a year," says Praful.

In fact, as Praful points out, every third ad today is in some way playing the health card. "Oils, juices, clothes... all are being sold on the back of health, in some way. So health has always been part of advertising," he says, admitting, "We tend to put the filters on when we work on 'typical' healthcare products. And that's going to change in a big way."

He also hopes this award will help attract the right talent to Medulla. "I don't blame people for thinking healthcare is a boring or unprofessional space to work in.... I hope this award helps change the perception. Going forward, we're hoping to hire from mainline creative agencies." Interestingly, about a third of Medulla's staff hails from a medical background. And that's why, says Amit, "the pharma brief is actually far sharper than the regular creative brief."

For Amit, working closely with his brother on Medulla's clients is refreshing. Over the years, after having worked on "chips and soft drinks," Amit had pretty much "gone through all the propositions - you've done the whole 'crispy', 'refreshing' routine...." but now he's enjoying breathing creative life into new concepts like dizziness. "It's a whole new world of propositions for me," says Amit.

We asked him about his seemingly formulaic award-winning 'Slums for Worms' ad for GlaxoSmithKline; international juries melt when they see ads that highlight India's poverty, goes Cannes-lore. "I'm aware of this phenomenon," fields Amit, "and honestly, there's no harm in latching onto it," before going on to clarify, of course, that this wasn't the reason this ad was slum-based.

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