Drug Wars

Ihave what feels like the drum solo from “Sing, Sing, Sing” beating my head to jelly. My stomach is in more turmoil than the Reform Party convention, and my body fat percentage is reaching triple digits.

I need a Tums, a couple of Nexium, maybe even some Xenical— although considering that fat-blocker’s side effects, that among other things mandate regular rest-room usage, maybe I’m better off carrying the extra pounds.

I’m not alone.

It’s been a drug-crazed summer for media agencies—and the journalists who cover them.

Just in the past six weeks, more than $1 billion in direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical media planning and buying consolidation reviews have cropped up like symptoms on a hypochondriac.

We’ve got Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Roche reviews. There’s the flu pill business, the anti-obesity account and the gastrointestinal billings all up for grabs.

Having realized that mainstream advertising works—and getting a little help from loosened federal regulations in recent years—the drugmakers are becoming kingmakers.

Prescription drugs were the sixth-largest upfront ad category this year. As recently as five years ago, practically none of their makers participated in the annual network TV feeding frenzy.

Contemplating the consequences of this turnaround is enough to make one dizzy. Pale. Sweaty, even. Why? Because the numbers being tossed around are so large, the media agency pecking order could go through convulsions before these reviews run their course.

Carat alone could increase its billings by 25 percent just by adding the part of the Pfizer business it doesn’t already handle.

Here’s another telling DTC tendency with interesting repercussions: There is no discussion about whether to unbundle media. For pharmaceutical marketers, at least, unbundling is not a trend; it’s standard operating procedure.

In fact, the Roche reviews for Xenical and the flu pill Tamiflu were sparked not by dissatisfaction with incumbents or marketplace conditions, one source tells me, but rather because it’s the way things are done now.

“They just realized they’re moving into a consolidated world,” the source notes. “It just evolved. Now they’re saying, ‘Let’s stop and take control, take a serious look at separating media out. And we’ll start with buying.’ “

Actually, these drug wars could lead to entirely new chapters in the unfolding media unbundling story.

After Roche completes its buying review, for example, it is conceivable it will consolidate general market and direct response media planning as well.

“I don’t know many clients that split planning and buying in direct,” says a source. Indeed, I don’t know of any direct-response marketer that splits media duties in that discipline.

Here’s my prediction for the future: We could start seeing a new prescription for media agencies in the direct arena—an epidemic of new media reviews.