Pfizer reviews agencies for major drug launches

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Pfizer is in the final stages of agency selection for two new drugs yet to receive government approval.

A decision is expected this week for the estimated $40 million account for Relpax, an anti-migraine drug expected to come to market next year once it receives clearance from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Soon after, a decision is expected on a new arthritis treatment, a second-generation drug to Pfizer's wildly successful Celebrex. The drug, which doesn't yet have a brand name, is identified by its scientific name, valdecoxib, and isn't expected to hit the market until 2001 or 2002.

Like Celebrex, the new drug will be jointly marketed by Pfizer and Monsanto's Searle division and both marketers are involved in the review.

The agencies believed to be in contention for Relpax are Bates Worldwide, D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, FCB Worldwide and Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, all New York. Agencies made final presentations last week, according to executives with knowledge of the marketer's plans. The shops also were asked to host "social functions" that would help Pfizer staffers decide if there was "working chemistry" between them and agency executives.

NON-PFIZER SHOPS IN HUNT

A handful of shops are still involved in the valdecoxib review, though the list and the size of the account could not be determined at press time. The list of hopefuls is said to include agencies outside Pfizer's roster.

A Pfizer spokeswoman confirmed the Relpax review, but declined to provide further details. A Pfizer spokesman able to comment on valdecoxib was unavailable, while a Monsanto spokesman said he was not aware of the review.

Relpax, which will compete with market-dominating Imitrex from Glaxo Wellcome and the surging Zomig from AstraZeneca, is expected to receive FDA approval early next year. Pfizer has expressed confidence the drug can become a blockbuster, with $1 billion in annual sales at its peak, though Wall Street analysts remain skeptical.

Relpax's prospects have been the subject of some discussion lately because of the role the drug plays in Pfizer's attempt to break up the proposed merger between Warner-Lambert Co. and American Home Products Corp. and to force a Pfizer/ Warner-Lambert union instead.

Pfizer and Warner-Lambert struck a deal two years ago to co-market and share profits from the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, which Warner-Lambert developed. Lipitor since has become a blockbuster, expected to generate some $4 billion in sales this year, and the central prize in the current merger battle. (Bates USA, New York, one of two Warner-Lambert agencies, handles Lipitor.)

In exchange for a share of the Lipitor windfall, the agreement called for Pfizer to share profits with Warner-Lambert on a drug Pfizer developed; this summer, Pfizer said Relpax would fill that role. If Relpax's sales don't approach Lipitor's success, Pfizer has given Warner-Lambert the option to take a larger share of Lipitor profits or share in the success of another Pfizer drug.

The matter, however, is currently in court because Warner-Lambert filed a lawsuit seeking to nullify the Lipitor agreement after Pfizer launched a hostile takeover bid, and Warner-Lambert said it still intends to merge with American Home Products.

Valdecoxib, still being tested in clinical trials and not yet before the FDA, is sure to attract more attention as its launch approaches. Celebrex, handled by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, is considered the most successful drug launch ever, with more than $1 billion in sales in 10 months on the market.

NEW APPROACH TO DTC

That Pfizer and Monsanto are in search of an agency this early is another indication of how important direct-to-consumer campaigns have become for drug manufacturers.

The two reviews represent a recent evolution in Pfizer's approach to DTC, where the marketer, traditionally loyal to its roster shops with healthcare expertise, has shown an increasing willingness to look for help from outside agencies that specialize in general consumer advertising.

An executive close to the marketer said the company believes its DTC work could be improved.

Contributing: Laura Petrecca

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