Whiter clothes or healthier lives?

Akali brothers, whose Medulla Communications won Agency of the Year award at Lions Health, chose the latter

Praful Akali (R), founder and director, Medulla Communications and Amit Akali, chief creative officer. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Praful Akali (R), founder and director, Medulla Communications and Amit Akali, chief creative officer. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Mumbai: The last week has been crazy for the Akali brothers, who brought home one of the most prestigious honours for the global advertising industry. Their agency, Medulla Communications Pvt. Ltd—Mumbai-based independent healthcare communications agency—picked up the Agency of the Year award at Lions Health, part of the 63rd International Festival of Creativity in Cannes, France.

This is the first time that an Indian agency has managed this feat in any category. Praful Akali, founder and director, Medulla Communications and Amit Akali, chief creative officer, talk about their award winning work and the journey to the top. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about your journey from being the number 3 agency of the year at Cannes last year, to the top spot this year.

Praful: Awards came in at a later date—of course part of it was to build credentials, but also doing better work for clients and being respected for our creativity. Which was important, because average work had been happening for such a long time—both from us, as well as mainline agencies working in this segment. So, whether it was the medical team, strategy or creative, we did a lot of workshops internally to expose them to the work being done internationally as well as to up their thinking and approach.

Last year was the first time we entered the Cannes awards and came out as the number three healthcare agency of the year. So when we came back, we said next year let’s aim for the number one spot, and we kept that aspiration to ourselves and often argued about whether we were setting the bar too high. So last year, we saw what the top two agencies had entered, what work had won, what had qualified.

Looked at what the network agencies were entering, how they were different, and based on that, we realised that in order to come anywhere close, we had to have so many campaigns across the year, entries in so many categories—and the campaigns had to be a mix of large above-the-line campaigns as well as well as specific campaigns. So, till we were called on stage, we couldn’t believe it, but at the same time, it was something we had worked towards.

Could you tell me about the Last Words campaign?

Amit: Not only was this something we did for the Indian Association of Palliative Care (IAPC), but this was also a cause that was very close to our hearts. Our mother was terminally ill, and till she passed away she was clear that she didn’t want to go to the hospital. But when she was critically ill towards the end, we felt we needed to take her to the hospital. So she was wired up and put in the ICU (intensive care unit) and didn’t get to spend the last moments with her family. While we were all there, all the time, we were outside the ICU. Watch the campaign here

So 10 years later, when we heard about it, we were sure that this was a cause that we wanted to be part of. Then when the medical team deep-dived into the system with the association guys, we realised that while IAPC was doing work, the system—including doctors—weren’t geared towards this. Doctors actually recommend that patients to go to the ICU, without realizing that it was pushing the patient away from their families and, unfortunately, most last words were heard by nurses rather than family members. We interviewed 200 nurses across India and got their stories, from their patients and the stories were gut wrenching. As one nurse narrated the last words of an eight-year-old boy, “Mummy ko bye bolna” (say bye to mummy) that literally became our film.

We went to Rahul Sengupta of Nineteen Films who loved the concept. Incidentally, his mother-in-law was the head of the nursing association. He got the best cameramen, musicians, etc. on to it and supported the cause, and actually did this work pro bono. Everyone just felt for this project, and it was then launched by the Human Rights Commissioner at the international conference of the IAPC. We had people in the audience breaking down, it went viral online with 100 million impressions on Twitter within the first 48 hours, unpaid. Over $8 million worth of PR, and that number must have gone up dramatically since.

Isn’t healthcare challenging to begin with considering the regulatory restrictions among other things?

Praful: It’s a challenging area. No doubt. It clearly requires a specialist agency, which is why we were founded in the first place. What is different out here, the audiences are extremely different. There are a lot of regulatory constraints and complexity of messaging. People assume they are barriers, but in actuality, it offers you more pegs to hang your communication on. At the end of the day, a detergent is only going to make your clothes whiter, does it impact the rest of your life? But if you can give someone a healthier life, that is life changing!

The world over, including at Cannes, there is a shift towards communication that has the power to change lives. That’s a good advantage to have for the healthcare industry. A lot of our successes come from using that advantage judiciously, and not getting limited by the barriers, some of which maybe in our own head.

And yet, healthcare seems to be picking up the key awards globally?

Amit: Honestly, these are opportunities. Over the last 20 years, I have worked on practically every category, from finance to chips! And healthcare is an exciting category. The idea was to not look at the jargon, but to look at the insights. Here, you had a medical team which was part of the creative process. And you actually got another set of briefs, insights, starting points, pegs for your creative. Suddenly, we were working on fresh propositions that you’ve never been exposed to—for anti-vertigo medicine or for worm infestation. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and how it’s affecting kids. So, the approach is really about the insights.

Could you tell us a little about the Zentel “Slums for Worms” ad?

Amit: We could have easily done this with computer graphics but we wanted to bring that realness to it. So, the execution team looked at materials that were really found in slums, such as paper, saw dust, wood shavings, tarpaulin, tin—all of that—and made a mini slum out of it. A print production company called Cocktail Art, got 20 artists, to work on that ten-foot giant intestine and make 3,500 houses, right down to last detail, from the antennae on each house, to the ladder outside, the cycle parked outside, right down to the window sill and windowpane. The jury really appreciated that detailing.

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