By Dave Sonderman
Chief Creative Officer



Recurring themes explored at Lions Health this year included empathy. The term was tossed around in all sorts of contexts – health bias, gaps in care, disease stigma, aging. For the most part, it was centered on better understanding between the health industry and people in health crisis. For me, as a creative leader and armchair strategist, empathy is most powerful in connecting ideas to audiences.

Whether you call it empathy – or insight or understanding or human truth – our appreciation for what’s going on inside the minds of audiences is the key to influencing what’s being acted out in the world. Rich human insights are the difference between the disingenuous, smiling-happy-people creativity we loathe and the authentic and rare life-changing creativity we celebrate at Lions Health.

Once again this year, very few product logos could be found among the Lions Health hardware recipients.

That’s not to take anything away from the courageous corporate commitments and disease state brilliance, but it’s a noticeable gap in the Pharma category.

While some might blame the regulated environment, I suspect it has more to do with our struggle to find empathy between pharma products and their customers.

Human understanding doesn’t require fair balance, so why is it so elusive in branded health creativity?
When agencies create for other product categories, it’s far easier to walk a mile in a target audience’s shoes. We can try a product out for ourselves and see how it satisfies a need. We can taste it or test-drive it. See how it fits, looks or feels. Bring it home and try it with the kids (heck, try it on the kids). We can visit the store, enroll in the program, admire the packaging, or otherwise get an intimate sense of how it feels to experience the products and services for which we’re creating.

Health, on the other hand, is such a personal experience. Pain and disease are summarily individual. We can’t just try on a disease like a new shirt. Or give ourselves high blood pressure, clinical depression, or heartburn (other than that which comes naturally with our chosen profession). We’re not going to taste test the latest antipsychotic or stick ourselves with a new pen to see if it really is “a more enjoyable injection experience.” We can’t take the latest aortic stent or knee replacement home to play with for the weekend.

So if creative professionals want to truly understand what’s going on with health decision-making, we’re going to have to find new ways to share experiences and feel what others are feeling.

Virtual reality might hold some promise. GSW recently collaborated on a VR project that invited doctors to experience the trauma and public embarrassment of an epileptic seizure. The response from neurologists and caregivers was powerful and inspiring. We weren’t alone in seeing the promise of VR: Lions Health judges evaluated more than 50 VR submissions this year. Only a migraine simulator for Excedrin found any traction with the judges, winning a Silver Lion. “Most of it was VR for VR sake,” lamented one judge. Fair enough, especially in a creative award show. But the empathy potential of artificial immersion into another’s experiences is tremendous – maybe better used to get after the insights that unlock creativity than a piece of creative itself.

Science may hold even more hope. Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has studied and mapped the body’s physiological responses to empathy. She used that understanding to build training curricula for healthcare professionals, including physicians, nurses, and frontline staff, to help them improve their connections with patients. And that does a lot more than just feel good. Empathy has been proven to help improve health outcomes and patient experiences, and to reduce health costs. Her groundbreaking research helped establish Empathetics (, an e-learning company designed to extend empathy training to industries beyond healthcare.

Our intuition as artists may provide the best spark. As Riess has noted, empathy is grounded in creative expression. For millennia, artists sculpted, painted, composed, or architected to help other people understand their feelings through their creations – to get someone else to understand and see the world their way. That dynamic is slightly inverted when our creative talents are for hire, but the tenets of empathy remain. The human understanding demonstrated by the most inspiring works at Lions Health is all the proof you need: breathless choirs, bicycles with MS, patient poetry slams, and even testifying testicles are all rich with empathy, even if they aren’t rich with product logos.