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Monsanto Co.'s Searle unit held quite a celebration last year.

Under the leadership of Joseph Papa, president of U.S. operations, Searle and co-marketer Pfizer, drove new arthritis treatment Celebrex to the height of drug marketing: It became the most successful launch ever, passing Pfizer's 1998 blockbuster Viagra. Since then, Searle has become a part of Pharmacia Corp., after Monsanto merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn.

But unlike Viagra, which was largely without competition, Celebrex marched to the top even though it launched only months before challenger Vioxx from Merck & Co.

IMS Health figures show Celebrex, which hit the market in January 1999, had $1.4 billion in sales last year, while Vioxx, a May launch, posted $373.4 million.

With Vioxx nearing Food & Drug Administration approval, Mr. Papa, 44, sought to make the most of Celebrex's four-month head start.

He was able to use that time to cultivate physician loyalty.

With a moderate dose of direct-to-consumer advertising, the estimated spending for Celebrex was about $25 million in 1999. That covered a brief TV campaign in May, followed by a September print effort. Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, handles.

"Once you win a championship, everyone wants to beat you," Mr. Papa says. "We clearly knew they coming after us and there would be a significant effort to compare Vioxx vs. Celebrex. We continued to make sure we stayed the leader."

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