Drug account could dull pain

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A drug touted as an extremely potent pain reliever could provide considerable financial relief in this difficult economic climate for one lucky agency.

Co-marketers Pharmacia Corp. and Pfizer are in the early stages of a review for an agency to handle the direct-to-consumer account for the successor to blockbuster arthritis drug Celebrex. The drug, known only by its generic name valdecoxib, is expected to receive approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration during the first half of next year and then be swiftly moved to market.

A Pharmacia spokesman, Craig Buchholz, said the marketers have held discussions with a group of agencies about their credentials and ability to handle the launch of the drug. Actual pitches have not begun, and Mr. Buchholz declined to cite a timetable. He also said it was too early to discuss billings, but the marketers spent some $78 million behind Celebrex last year after spending $28 million in the launch year of 1999, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. The new drug is viewed as a growth driver for both Pharmacia and Pfizer.

Mr. Buchholz also declined to name which agencies are involved in the search, though the list is believed to include roster shops of both Pharmacia and Pfizer. Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, has handled Celebrex since its launch-deemed one of the most successful in history with $1.4 billion in sales in 1999.

Other shops that could be in contention include Pfizer agencies Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch (Zyrtec and Zoloft), Bcom3's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles (Relpax) and Omnicom Group's Cline, Davis & Mann (Viagra) plus Pharmacia shops Havas Advertising's Jordan, McGrath Case & Partners (over-the-counter Rogaine) and Havas' Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG (Ambien) and Omnicom's Merkley Newman Harty (Activella). All of these agencies are in New York.

Havas New York shop Lally, McFarland & Pantello/Euro RSCG has handled the professional advertising account for valdecoxib since late 1999.

The DTC agency will likely play a role in selecting a brand name for the drug. Earlier this month, Pharmacia filed these trademarks with the federal government: Kobar, Xactic, Axxia and Avior. In previous months, the company filed to use Maxtra and Vybra.

For the past two years, Celebrex has been engaged in a much-ballyhooed battle with Merck's Vioxx, largely on TV (Merck spent some $160 million-plus last year on Vioxx, according to CMR). The wildly successful drugs, known as Cox-2 inhibitors, are touted as revolutionary because they treat arthritis without causing gastrointestinal discomfort. In the first quarter of 2001, Celebrex posted U.S. sales of $649 million, compared with $350 million for Vioxx, according to the companies. Celebrex garnered $2.2 billion in domestic sales last year, compared to $1.7 billion for Vioxx.

The war between the next-generation Cox-2 drugs-valdecoxib and etoricoxib from Merck-is expected to take on a similar intensity once they hit the market. A recent study by consultancy Decision Resources found the next-phase drugs are not expected to be significantly more efficacious, but should propel explosive growth in the market for chronic pain treatments from an estimated $4.8 billion in 2000 to more than $7 billion by 2010. A Merck spokeswoman said the company is not releasing its FDA filing strategy for etoricoxib.

Pharmacia's Mr. Buchholz declined comment on how Celebrex and valdecoxib might be differentiated from each other in the market, but said "both Celebrex and valdecoxib have important roles in our portfolio."

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