Vivus to slash obesity salesforce by one-third, turn to digital instead

Critics say Vivus ($VVUS) has lacked the marketing muscle to build up its weight-loss med Qsymia ever since it chose to launch without a large commercial partner. And now, the company has chosen to shrink its salesforce by a third, with about 50 reps headed for the door.

Vivus is reducing its force from "approximately 150 to approximately 100," it told FiercePharmaMarketing in an emailed statement. The remaining doc-detailers will focus on target areas the company deems "most productive"--such as key healthcare providers and payers in the antiobesity market, CEO Seth Fischer said in a statement.

In place of the staffers it's shedding, the California drugmaker intends to beef up its digital media projects, which Fischer says have been a hit so far. An increasing number of Qsymia prescribers haven't been targeted by the company's medical education or commercial sales activities, he said.

"We are encouraged especially by the success of our Qsymia digital marketing initiatives, which are providing motivated consumers the new information they need to start a conversation with their healthcare providers about weight loss and Qsymia," Fischer said in the statement, adding that search engine optimization and other Web-based patient outreach are among the company's priorities.

Vivus has been taking heat for its commercial decisions ever since it rolled out Qsymia in late 2012. Its decision to market the med on its own helped spark a proxy war that ultimately claimed half the company's board and then-CEO Leland Wilson.

Since then, the company has been something of a revolving door. The 50 exiting reps will join a long list of departed employees, including 20 staffers laid off in November 2013, all but one pre-proxy-war board member, short-lived CEO Tony Zook, CFO Timothy Morris, President Peter Tam and Chief Commercial Officer Michael Miller.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Simos Simeonidis doesn't think Vivus' new sales revamp is the way to stem the tide. "We believe that reducing the salesforce's size from the obesity-space-low number of 150 to 100 will only make things even more difficult for Qsymia," he wrote in a Wednesday note to investors, adding, "Obesity is an area where 'size matters,' in terms of commercial support."

New--and staffed-up--competition won't make anything easier for Vivus. In addition to longtime rival Belviq from Arena--which is supported by partner Eisai and 450 reps--Qsymia now has to face Novo Nordisk's ($NVO) Saxenda and Orexigen's ($OREX) Contrave, which has 900 reps and an assist from Takeda behind its rollout.

Simeonidis isn't so hot on Vivus' other plans for saving money, either. The company said this week it would discuss cost-saving changes to a postmarketing cardiovascular study required by the FDA and EMA, but "we find it unlikely that either agency would allow the company to not stick to the original plan," Simeonidis wrote.

- read Vivus' release

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