Drug wars escalate as 3 accounts go into play

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Two leading cholesterol-lowering drugs with combined accounts of $115 million are in review. The company behind a third drug, which could ultimately top the category in sales but is not yet available, has also started looking for an ad agency.

All of which means marketing behind this cutting edge class of drugs, known as statins, is about to experience a significant shift in the status quo.

Pfizer has tossed its estimated $55 million account for market leader Lipitor into review, while Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. has done the same for its estimated $60 million account for Pravachol, the No. 3 player.


Meanwhile, AstraZeneca has launched a search for what is being billed as a superstatin, a product yet to be approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration that the company said has the potential to outperform the others.

The No. 2 statin is Merck & Co.'s Zocor, distinguished by its ads featuring National Football League coach Dan Reeves. The account remains at Ogilvy & Mather Healthcare, New York.

Pfizer has contacted a long list of agencies, said to be about nine, to pitch the Lipitor account, which had been at Bates USA, New York, those familiar with the matter said. At least three agencies were vying for the Pravachol business, while the number of participants in the AstraZeneca review could not be determined.

Calls to Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb were not immediately returned. An AstraZeneca spokeswoman declined comment.

The Lipitor review is hardly a surprise. A desire to gain full control of the product, which had been co-marketed by Pfizer and Warner-Lambert Co., was a leading reason behind Pfizer's takeover of Warner-Lambert. Since the merger, Bates has fallen from favor with executives at the new Pfizer; the agency was notified this summer it would lose the estimated $200 million in planning duties it handled for Warner-Lambert. Also, some viewed the Lipitor creative as lackluster.

"For a brand as truly powerful as Lipitor, the execution always felt like a non-event," said one industry observer.

An ad agency executive said Bates would not defend the account. Last week, Bates won the estimated $20 million to $40 million Altace account, along with pitch partner Rubin Ehrenthal & Associates, New York. The hypertension drug, co-marketed by American Home Products and King Pharmaceuticals, competes with Pfizer's Norvasc, which Pfizer co-promotes with Lipitor. Calls to AHP and King were not returned by press time.

The Pravachol review, said to include DDB Corbett and WPP Group-owned CommonHealth USA's Quantum Group, Parsippany, N.J.; and Robert A. Becker/Euro RSCG, New York, was more of a surprise. Incumbent Bozell, New York, which may defend, earlier this year launched a major new TV and print campaign for the brand. That came after Bristol-Myers Squibb halted all consumer ads for Pravachol in 1999; in '98, the marketer spent some $61 million, according to Competitive Media Reporting.


The review for AstraZeneca's superstatin underscores the trend of pharmaceutical marketers turning to consumer agencies at earlier stages in the brand-building process. The launch of the product is not expected until at least 2002 and the winning agency's first task probably will be to assist in choosing a name.

The superstatin promises to add more intrigue to a category that rivals allergy drugs for the most activity in direct-to-consumer advertising. In both categories, the three leading drugs all run heavy DTC efforts, going against conventional wisdom that says if a campaign for a second- or third-place drug drives someone into a doctor's office, they will likely emerge with the market leader's prescription.

But sales of the three leading statins continue to grow as the category expands. Category sales were $701 million in the month of May alone, up 28% from the year before, according to IMS Health. All three marketers feel DTC will help them gain new users.

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