Exclusive: Drug giant puts $235 mil into play

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The maker of the popular Ambien sleeping pill is looking to settle $235 million in global advertising accounts at one holding company and has narrowed its choices to three.

WPP Group, Publicis Groupe and Havas Advertising will compete to handle the accounts of Paris-based Sanofi-Synthelabo, which spent $58.4 million on U.S. advertising last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

The move to consolidate comes as Sanofi-which also markets Plavix, a preventative drug for second heart attacks, Aruxtra (thrombosis) and Eloxatin (cancer)-seeks to protect its top brand.

Ambien is the most widely prescribed sleep aid in the U.S., with anticipated 2003 sales of $1.3 billion, according to IMS Health. That accounts for nearly all of the estimated $1.5 billion in prescription sleep medication sales last year, according to Merrill Lynch analyst Gregory Gilbert.

IMS Health research showed a 25% growth in the sleep-drug market in the last two years. "Ambien is the prize here," said a Havas executive.

Ambien doesn't lose patent protection until 2006, but will face stiff competition in the category as soon as this month. Sepracor's Estorra, a sleep aid that can be taken for longer than the recommended seven to 10 days usually prescribed for Ambien, is close to Food and Drug Administration approval. Its launch will be backed by a $50 million campaign from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson, New York.

Sanofi's accounts are currently scattered among various agencies and holding companies. Ambien, which gets the lion's share of the U.S. media budget, is split between Havas' Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners, New York, and independent healthcare specialist Abelson-Taylor, Chicago.

Havas is believed to be pitching with Euro RSCG and Arnold Worldwide. WPP is relying on Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam, as well as its CommonHealth Group. It was not clear which Publicis agencies are participating in the review.

All three holding companies will make presentations this week in Paris. Sanofi said a decision is expected by the end of the year.

"It's a very strange review in that it's being run out of Paris but it's mostly for the U.S. market. Even the briefs went out in French. We had to get somebody to translate it," said an executive from WPP familiar with the review. "They're looking for very specific tasks on each brand, especially Ambien."

Also looming is another rival, expected to hit the market in 2005: Neurocrine Bioscience's Indiplon. Indiplon will come in two forms, including one in which 75% of the drug leaves the body after five hours to avoid morning grogginess.

Some analysts expect Indiplon to be successful, in part because of the drug's effects and in part because Neurocrine chose Pfizer as its marketing partner on Indiplon.

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