Agency world finds clock ticks slower in DTC arena

By Published on .

Advertising might be a fast-paced world, but when it comes to marketing new pharmaceuticals to consumers, the byword is patience.

Agencies routinely compete for a direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical account at least one full year before a product launches and, in many cases, even before the Food & Drug Administration has approved the new drug.

For instance, Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, New York, in January won the estimated $50 million account for the cholesterol-lowering drug ezetimibe, jointly marketed by Schering-Plough Corp. and Merck & Co., even though the product is not expected to reach the market for two years. Another cholesterol-lowering statin awaiting approval, AstraZeneca's Crestor, is expected to hit the market by mid-2002, and Omnicom Group's KPR, New York, already is developing ad work.


Likewise, Pfizer awarded its estimated $40 million account for migraine drug Relpax to Bcom3 Group's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, in December 1999, but the product has still not yet received FDA approval.

Merck's Vioxx, a Cox-2 inhibitor for arthritis relief, hired DDB to begin work on its marketing months before FDA approval was granted in mid-1999.

In 1997, early in the direct-to-consumer era, Pharmacia & Upjohn tapped Havas Advertising's Jordan McGrath Case & Partners/Euro RSCG, New York, to handle consumer branding for cholesterol treatment Colestid when the drug was still awaiting FDA approval to be sold over the counter. The clearance never came.

Despite the risks, industry experts say the long lead time is necessary with pharmaceutical marketing. For one thing, drug campaigns are inherently time-consuming since agency staff must learn at least some of the science behind the drug to make an ad that explains the benefits and side effects.

Precision is critical for the creative product: Government regulators and consumer watchdogs will land hard on a pharmaceutical marketer that misstates the health effects of the drug in advertising.

The time frames also are long because, in many cases, the drug itself is new. It is axiomatic in the industry that unknown products must be presented to consumers with special care.

"You can't start too early," says Bob Ehrlich, founder of direct-to-consumer consulting company Rx Insight and former VP-consumer marketing for Warner-Lambert Co.'s Parke-Davis. "One year might not be enough for a quality commercial."


"There's a complexity in DTC that's not present in a lot of other categories. Companies want their agencies to really understand the product," he says. "If you're dealing with an airline that switches agencies, it's not that hard for the copywriter to figure it out."

Such in-depth knowledge is especially important when a commercial is going to list side effects, which take up a significant portion of a 60-second spot.

Then, beyond understanding the chemistry, agencies also do extensive market research-which can take up to a year, even in instances where the drug has been on the market.

Before breaking a campaign for Glaxo Wellcome's Imitrex, Grey Healthcare Group "did extensive testing on how to market to migraine sufferers," says Jane Parker, president of the unit of Grey Global Group, New York. Grey won the $40 million account in October 1999 from Klemtner Advertising, New York, but did not launch a full-blown Imitrex campaign until a year later. Pharmaceutical companies also generally want to build in enough time to educate doctors before targeting consumers. The danger in creating demand prematurely is that physicians and consumers will become frustrated, risking bad will for the brand.


"You don't want to go out with DTC until physicians are educated," says Mark Morris, chairman of Bates North America, a unit of Cordiant Communications Group. "You don't want to alienate the learned intermediary."

Pfizer's statin Lipitor had been on the market for two years and heavily supported by outreach to physicians when Bates took over the ad account in April '98. It was unusual for an agency to start work on a drug account at that stage of development, but it still took almost another year for Bates to debut a consumer campaign for Lipitor in March '99, and the ads came out sooner than anyone expected, Mr. Morris says.

Today, accounts are awarded before there even is a product, so that an agency's inaugural campaign is also the public's first introduction to the product.

"The stakes are very, very high in the first year," Mr. Ehrlich says, adding that the introductory launch is the company's best chance at establishing its product's reputation. "If you make a bad Heinz ketchup commercial, you can make another one. You have equity in your brand."

With pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, "companies have one shot at effective marketing."

Most Popular
In this article: