Three Shops Vie for New Insomnia Drug Estorra

Drug maker Sepracor will do its first direct-to-consumer advertising next year when it releases its new insomnia product, Estorra. The Marlborough, Mass., client has launched a creative review to find a partner for that push, sources said. The company will back the launch with an estimated $50 million adspend.

Within the next two weeks, Sepracor will brief at least three agencies, including Omnicom Group’s Merkley Newman Harty & Partners, Interpublic Group’s McCann-Erickson (and its recently formed Humancare division) and WPP Group’s Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, all New York, sources said. The shops either declined comment or did not return calls.

Pitches will take place in mid-October, with a decision shortly thereafter, sources said. Media is not involved, although it was unclear who will handle buying on the business. The client declined comment.

Four client executives attended the credentials and capabilities meetings with agencies, sources said, including Sepracor chairman and CEO Timothy Barberich.

Merkley, McCann and Berlin Cameron also competed this summer for various Pfizer brands, but only Merkley came up short. McCann won Bextra, and Berlin Cameron landed Zyrtec. Merkley’s DTC experience includes Pfizer’s Lipitor and TAP Pharmaceutical Products’ Prevacid.

Cincinnati consultancy Clear Perspectives managed the early stages of the Estorra review, but it is no longer involved, sources said. The consultancy did not return calls.

Estorra is to compete with Paris-based Sanofi-Synthelabo’s Ambien, for which $65 million was spent on U.S. media in 2002, according to Nielsen-Monitor Plus. Havas’ Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners in New York and healthcare shop Abelson-Taylor in Chicago handle ad duties on Ambien.

Corey Davis, an analyst who follows the pharmaceutical industry and Sepracor specifically for J.P. Morgan in New York, suggested that advertising for Estorra should highlight its benefits over the two category leaders, Ambien and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals’ Sonata.

“[The insomnia-drug category] is a relatively new category that has been dominated by benzodiazepine drugs such as Xanax,” Davis said. “These carry a higher risk of dependency than newer drugs [such as Ambien and Sonata]. Evidence points toward no dependency risk with Estorra.” He added that the category has grown because of products with a decreased risk of dependency.

Clinical trials have shown that Estorra can be taken for longer than the recommended 7 to 10 days for Ambien and Sonata, according to company research.

About $330 million in pharmaceutical billings have gone into review in 2003. Pfizer’s review also included its Zoloft brand (Publicis Groupe’s The Kaplan Thaler Group) and a pending pitch between Kaplan Thaler and Havas’ Arnold, both New York, for Celebrex. Besides Pfizer, Novartis’ Lotrel was the only other pharmaceutical review this year, including Pfizer.

In 2002, $560 million in pharmaceutical business was in play, and that included reviews for Aventis’ Lantus, Prevacid and Novartis’ Zelnorm.