Drug Makers Boost Direct Response Biz

When the Federal Drug Administration gave pharmaceutical clients the go-ahead to pitch prescription drugs on TV in 1997, the category quickly became one of the top five in U.S. ad spending. Now drug marketers are making the same kind of impact in direct response, and the Direct Marketing Association is responding by launching a Pharmaceutical Marketing Council.

“The goal of the Council will be to help pharmaceutical marketers increase sales and grow their bottom lines through … direct and interactive marketing,” said Anne Schaeffer, the DMA’s svp of professional development and training/councils.

A DMA rep estimated pharmaceutical direct-response spending topped $1 billion out of last year’s total direct-response adspend of $3.6 billion.

Pharmaceutical advertising has expanded from $4.3 billion in 1999 to just under $5 billion last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. Most of that growth was fueled by direct-to-consumer spending, which rose from $1.6 billion in 1999 to $2.5 billion last year. The category is now outspent by only automotive, retail, food and beverage, and media advertisers in the U.S.

“A lot of companies entered direct marketing because they had to,” noted Loreen Babcock, president of Omnicom-owned direct-response agency LLKFB in New York, which handles Pfizer, Abbott Labs and Bristol-Myers Squibb. (FDA regulations require drug ads to include a toll-free number for consumers to call for more information.) “Now they understand its value as a marketing tool.”

Direct-response is appealing to drug makers in part because it allows them to explain complicated issues such as compliance to patients.

Dorothy Wetzel, vp of consumer marketing at Pfizer, noted that many patients don’t take their medications properly or falsely believe that as soon as they feel better, they can discontinue their drugs. “It’s a major behavioral change for many people, and they need reinforcement and support,” she said, adding that Pfizer has seen a 5-20 percent increase in compliance as a result of its direct programs.

“As issues get more complex, budgets for direct marketing have increased,” added Ellen Miller, senior evp of Interpublic Group shop Draft’s healthcare practice in Chicago, which has worked with Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly.

Direct response channels such as Web sites or telephone marketing also provide more privacy for patients embarrassed to ask certain questions of their doctor, said Fred Rubin, director of IPG’s iDeutsch and directDeutsch in New York.

The Pharmaceutical Marketing Council will include five to ten yet-to-be-named agency and client executives and a council chair. It will organize networking and educational opportunities for DMA members, as well as conduct research and create best practices. The council, which will join 14 others at the association, will officially kick off at the DMA’s annual conference Oct. 11-15.