Disney’s Phineas & Ferb: Teaching Pharma About Faith & Fearlessness

By Sven Larsen (@zemoga)

In the weeks following ad:tech New York, the song above was stuck in my head. Why? In between sessions, I was reading my free copy of Fast Company from the attendee gift bag, which included a feature about the popular Disney Channel cartoon, Phineas & Ferb. I had combed through most of the issue, but that article stayed with me for a while. The song played in my head round the clock, even as I tried to write posts for Pixels & Pills…until I decided that it was there for a reason: the compelling story of Phineas & Ferb has a really important lesson to teach the pharma industry about letting go.

My argument has less to do with the plot surrounding the triangular Phineas Flynn and his rectangular stepbrother, Ferb Fletcher, and more to do with how they ended up winning over the hearts and minds of Disney execs – and viewers all around the world. If I had to guess, I’d put Phineas and Ferb somewhere in the middle school age group (this is never disclosed in the show), but the reality of the situation is that Phineas & Ferb are almost 20 years old. The road from sketchbook to screen has been a long one for the duo-behind-the-duo, namely, the show’s creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh.

Povenmire and Marsh were both layout artists for the hit Fox TV show The Simpsons. Their friendship continued as they both joined the writing team for Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Life. After Rocko’s, the two careers diverged, but Povenmire continued to carry around his Phineas & Ferb portfolio, even when he joined the team of another blockbuster animated comedy, Family Guy.

Finally, 16 years after they first started pitching the cartoon, Povenmire and Marsh got the chance to put Phineas & Ferb in front of Disney execs. The pitch was shelved. Povenmire and Marsh received feedback that the show was “outside the company mold.” By this, they meant that the angular aesthetic of the characters may turn viewers off, and the jokes were too sophisticated for the target demographic of 6- to 14-year-old boys. As Fast Company put it: “In other words, too smart for Disney.” Much to the creators’ surprise, Disney green-lighted Phineas & Ferb, with a challenge to woo their audience in under 11 minutes. After a wildly successful pilot airing, Disney picked up the show in 2006.

No one knows the formula for success better than Disney – those guys have marketing to children & teens down to a science. They built their powerhouse media empire on the right combination of programming and merchandising. They’ve started crazes around franchises like High School Musical and Hannah Montana. But when it came to Phineas & Ferb, all those rules had to get tossed out the window. Disney had faith in Povenmire and Marsh’s vision, and took a chance with them. Now let’s take a look at what made the investment so risky.

Part of Disney’s “mold” was its script-driven model for animated series. The writers write. The execs tweak. The animators animate. Phineas & Ferb required a storyboard-driven approach “that begins with a detailed outline, bypasses the traditional script stage, and turns things over to a team of storyboard artists to produce a scene-by-scene visual break-down accompanied by key dialogue.” In other words, the outcome is less predictable. The show takes on an organic life of its own, the plot grows and develops right before everyone’s eyes. This invites a level of artistic freedom that is crucial to the show’s effectiveness.

Phineas & Ferb continues to top the ratings charts, and even took home a few Emmys for its original music (the creators compose a differnt song for each episode). Disney also found tremendous merchandising opportunities in the show’s 3 simultaneous plotlines – doubling the number of licensees that the highly lucrative Spongebob Squarepants has.

We’ve been seeing a lot of blog posts and tweets from the Pharma community about FDA regulations. Some inform, some criticize, and others poke fun at the whole situation. At the ePharma Summit this past February, we got a preview from DDMAC’s Thomas Abrams of what to expect when we finally get that social media guidance we’ve all been waiting for. These were promised to us over a year ago – but think about what we’ve accomplished in that year, without the guidance. Could pharma continue innovating in this space running on faith, like Phineas & Ferb, instead of regulations?

That’s a scary thought for some people, not just the ones in Washington. Over the last year-and-a-half of Pixels & Pills’ lifetime, we’ve enjoyed the pleasure of meeting and creating strong friendships with some really, really intelligent marketers. You’re not only uber creative, but you’re experienced. You constantly watch the industry, and observe both the good and the bad. We’re fortunate to be in a community that constantly criticizes itself. We almost self-regulate. And this has led to some flops, but more importantly, it’s led to us breaking some crucial ground. This whole ecosystem, what we’ve been able to accomplish together – pharma marketers, empowered patients, and doctors alike – has been impressive.

There’s still a long road ahead of us, and the tools and technology are evolving by the minute. I think our continued success lies on a foundation of faith and fearlessness. What do you think?

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