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Pfizer has tossed its estimated $75 million assignment for Zyrtec, an anti-allergy drug, into review three months after the product's advertising received a top industry award.

The drug giant late last week made a first cut of potential new agencies, executives close to the situation said. The shops will meet with Pfizer later this month or early in June.

A decision is expected sometime in July or August.

A sternly worded Pfizer document warned ad agencies not to speak publicly about the review. However, Vanessa McGowan, Pfizer's manager of pharmaceutical communications, confirmed that a hunt for a new creative shop is under way.

Consultancy Advice & Advisors, New York, is shepherding Pfizer's review.

In the request for proposals, Pfizer bills itself as a non-bureaucratic entity seeking a "partner" for only creative on direct-to-consumer advertising, an executive said.

In February, current agency HMC, New York, won first place in the international Mobius competition for its "The Power of Zyrtec" campaign.

Ms. McGowan said Pfizer is pleased with HMC, but wanted to explore other options.

"They've done a wonderful job," she said. "It's standard. Everyone moves around. It's part of the business."

Carat USA, New York, handles media buying and planning for Pfizer.


Ms. McGowan said a desire to move the account to a general consumer agency from healthcare-only HMC did not factor into the decision to launch a review. But executives close to the situation said Pfizer is targeting large New York-based agencies.

Zyrtec competitor Claritin, from Schering-Plough Corp., is handled by healthcare-only agency CommonHealth, Parsippany, N.J., while Hoechst Marion Roussel in November switched its Allegra brand's direct-to-consumer work to Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, from healthcare-only Medicus Communications, New York.

Zyrtec is No. 2 in the $2 billion anti-allergy prescription market, with $355 million in 1998 sales, behind Claritin with $1.1 billion, according to consultancy IMS Health. Allegra was third with $324 million in sales.

According to first-quarter earnings reports of all three marketers, Zyrtec's second-place position could be slipping. Hoechst reported U.S. sales of Allegra at $139 million, ahead of Zyrtec's $126 million. Both were far behind Claritin's $565 million.

Ms. McGowan, however, said product sales did not play a role in the decision to launch the agency review. Pfizer has reported Zyrtec's first-quarter sales were

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