Pfizer rips up DTC rule book

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In a radical remedy for Pfizer's ailing marketing strategy, it's out with traditional DTC advertising, and out with one of the top marketing executives who oversaw it.

Citing a shifting media landscape that has reduced the effectiveness of Pfizer's traditional marketing efforts, as well as the "toxic environment" for direct-to-consumer drug advertising-a neat euphemism for increasingly aggressive government scrutiny and growing public criticism of this tactic-the world's largest pharmaceutical marketer is completely rethinking how it wields its $1 billion budget.

That means the end of the reign of VP-Consumer Marketing Dorothy Wetzel, who was partially responsible for the old direction, and could portend bad news for the dozens of agencies on Pfizer's roster if they don't adapt fast to the new philosophy at the nation's fourth-largest advertiser.

What does that philosophy entail? The sea change will reduce outlays on TV and boost Internet and radio spending, but perhaps most importantly, redirect ad messaging to focus almost exclusively on encouraging dialogue between patients and physicians and include more comprehensive risk information. The shifts won't be subtle. "Most definitely, everyone from the professional to the average consumer will see a change in our advertising in the next year," said Greg Duncan, Pfizer's senior VP-U.S. marketing.

Ms. Wetzel's move-she remains with the company in a new role-clearly reflected a feeling that a major change was needed, as well as a clear way to mark a transition from old to new strategies. But executives at roster agencies, several of whom expressed regret at her being pushed aside, speculated that it also reflected "a lack of cohesion" in marketing efforts at the company, and the difficulty of achieving that cohesion in a marketing structure that tends to empower individual brand managers to act as they see fit.

Pfizer looks to be ahead of most of its competition in terms of accepting the need for radical change. Mr. Duncan said: "We are trying to innovate in ways we haven't before." He admitted that the current political pressure and consumer backlash against DTC advertising has made for "an environment that is fairly toxic, and we do need to be cognizant of that." But, he added: "The second issue causing us to innovate and adapt our strategy is because it's becoming harder and harder to reach consumers. Our past techniques are not serving us well."

The agencies that have been responsible for those techniques will also feel the wind of change. "We expect our agency partners to adapt and innovate at this accelerated pace," added Mr. Duncan.

Commented one agency president: "They see the threats coming. They want to zig when everybody else is zagging."

In a sign of how much it is challenging convention, Pfizer threw the $112 million Lipitor business into review even though the cholesterol-fighter is the world's biggest-selling prescription medication, owning 42.2% of the market, according to MDC Health, saw sales grow at a healthy 22% clip for the second quarter compared to the same period last year.

THE RIGHT TIME

"The right time to change is when you have the most momentum going," said Mr. Duncan. "Despite all the success we've had with Lipitor, there are still 50% of patients who are not diagnosed. And of the 50% who are, half of them are not adequately treated. We have an obligation to patients, and to our shareholders, to change those rates and get those 50% in to talk to their doctors."

The current agency, Omnicom Group's Merkley & Partners, New York, is defending against Publicis Groupe's Kaplan Thaler; Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos; WPP' Group's JWT; and independent McGarry Bowen.

Ms. Wetzel could not be reached for comment. She is succeeded by Ellen Brett, who has worked on several brands for Pfizer, including Zyrtec. Pfizer did not make Ms. Brett available for an interview and did not make clear whether she takes Ms. Wetzel's title.

Mr. Duncan said the company does not comment on personnel matters. "It would be safe to say we are always evolving our talent management strategy to make sure it is paired up with our business opportunities."

contributing: lisa sanders

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