Sexual healing: Viagra’s Veronica Piacek

Let's talk about sex.

Let’s talk about sex.

Not always an easy proposition, especially among Viagra’s older-skewing male target. But, in her sixth year at the helm of the Kirkland, Que.-based Pfizer Canada brand, Veronica Piacek, team leader, urology, has demonstrated that constantly seeking feedback – from consumers and physicians alike – about everything from sexual performance to sexual nuances has paid off.

Even after facing two years of competition from rival erectile dysfunction (ED) treatments Cialis and Levitra, Viagra has held on to two-thirds of the Canadian market share (the second highest in the world for Viagra), cementing its number-one spot in the category.

And her campaigns have been picked up by her international counterparts around the world, including Europe, Latin America, and even the U.S., where a spot featuring ecstatic men singing Queen’s ‘We are the Champions,’ was the first in Pfizer Canada’s history to be adopted down south. Piacek also oversees DETROL, a bladder control treatment; her 2005 campaign for the brand has since been picked up in Ireland.

‘It’s no coincidence that Veronica has consistently been the client behind many successful campaigns,’ says Zak Mroueh, VP/ECD at Taxi in Toronto. ‘She expects and demands great work from an agency. When she believes in an idea, she supports and nurtures it emphatically.’

Part of Piacek’s support and nurturing process includes backing up concepts with data to get them to fly internally, and, of course, to ensure different nuances about the touchy subject won’t offend the target. ‘People say to me ‘Veronica, we’ve already researched Viagra tons,” she says, referring to her internal reputation as a research hound. ‘To me, it’s vital to test ad concepts before they go on…. I want the data to back up that consumers are fine with it, that physicians are fine with it.’

Piacek moved to Viagra in 2000, just one year after its Canadian launch, after spending six years working on Pfizer consumer health care brands like Visine and Reactine. She immediately recognized that the brand would need unique treatment. ‘Viagra’s different – a consumer-driven pharmaceutical product,’ she explains. She knew physicians wouldn’t be proactive about prescribing her product, so she had to get consumers to ask for it. She started pushing for a consumer ad campaign, which wasn’t an easy task.

‘That was a big thing for Pfizer,’ she recalls. ‘It took a lot of persuasion. We did a lot of research.’ She built up credibility internally by doing lots of presentations, and backing up her stance with facts and figures like the stat indicating it took ED sufferers an average of five years to acknowledge their problem. ‘There was some push-back internally, that’s for sure. I was lucky my boss was supportive.’ Once she secured approval, she had agencies pitch for the business. Taxi won.

While getting the internal okay to launch a consumer ad campaign was tough, it wasn’t the end of the battle: She was encouraged to keep costs down by picking up American ads. But she felt strongly that the Canadian market would respond better to original work, in part because pharmaceutical ad regulations are very different here. For example, in Canada, pharmaceutical ads aren’t allowed to link their product to any medical conditions. Luckily, research findings backed her up once again. ‘The U.S. creative didn’t test as well as the Canadian work,’ she says.

And the rest is advertising history. In the past five years, Piacek and Taxi have unleashed Viagra campaigns ranging from quite serious (‘Doctor’s Office,’ featuring a man too embarrassed to bring up ED at his annual physical exam) to quite silly (‘Bleep,’ last year’s series of three spots with men boasting about their raunchy escapades). The quirkier ads, including ‘Bleep’ and ‘My Way,’ racked up international awards, including prestigious Cannes Lions nods in 2005 (Gold) and 2004 (finalist) respectively.

Landing Guy Lafleur as a spokesperson in 2001 was also quite the feat for Viagra. The move was a huge PR score, as dozens of media outlets across Canada jumped on the story. And, last year, Piacek leveraged the Lafleur connection with the ‘Viagra Legends of Hockey’ old-timers hockey event, which demonstrated the brand has gone from taboo to an accepted part of our culture in a relatively short time. Piacek chalks this up to the exposure from the consumer campaigns: ‘With all the ads we’ve been doing, people are pretty comfortable with [Viagra] now.’

Before launching consumer campaigns, though, Piacek had to win over physicians. ‘We did a lot of continuing medical education to help [physicians] open up the discussion,’ she says, adding that getting consumers to ask for Viagra wouldn’t help if physicians weren’t comfortable talking about the

still-stigmatized subject. Piacek reinforced her commitment to work with the medical community in 2002, when she launched the men’s sexual health magazine Optimale in partnership with the Canadian Male Sexual Health Council. It currently has a circulation of about 125,000, and can be found in most doctors’ offices across the country. Consumers can also request it directly through Viagra’s toll-free hotline.

While Piacek is tight-lipped about upcoming initiatives, she says she’ll continue to focus on keeping Viagra’s top rank in the category, and partnering with the medical community. And, thanks to the inroads she’s made internally, she shouldn’t have much trouble carrying out her vision.

For her part, she’s content, citing her work on Viagra as a career highlight thus far. ‘I’m most proud of building up the consumer expertise at Pfizer.’


Favourite TV show:

The Amazing Race. The chance to discover new places, experience different cultures and meet new people really appeals to me.

Greatest strength:

Could also be my weakness: Perseverance! Challenging the status quo, creativity, strategic planning and…hopefully, inspiring my team.

Most useful business book:

Who Moved my Cheese? Demonstrates very simply the importance of adapting with

the times and keeping abreast

of changes.