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Ex Viagra salesman shares anecdotes in ‘Hard Sell’

Mimi Avins Los Angeles Times

There are two groups who seem to indulge in writing memoirs: people who are too young to have lived through very much, and those who have lived so long that they’ve forgotten much that happened.

Jamie Reidy would seem to be from the first pack. He’s only 35, and his story, “Hard Sell” (Andrews McMeel, 224 pages, $19.95), chronicles his professional adventures from 25 to 30.

But in his last two years working as a salesman for Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, he was among 119 reps in the urology division charged with marketing a new wonder pill called Viagra. Perhaps this young man has some stories to tell after all.

Reidy’s one-line summation of his experience as a rookie drug peddler is: “Unmotivated guy stumbles into coveted industry, then – despite lousy sales numbers – gets promoted into elite division selling the most talked-about pill of all time.”

“I was the kid who didn’t become a doctor because I almost failed high school chemistry,” he says. “I was trained for six weeks and considered qualified to tell doctors which drugs to prescribe. Scary, isn’t it?”

If the men and women who sell Viagra aren’t initially comfortable spending their days talking to doctors about sexual dysfunction and, after work, being the center of attention at any bar or party, they quickly learn to be at ease.

“Talking about sex all the time at work was trippy,” Reidy says, “but you get used to it.”

His book avoids the political debate about the cost of prescription drugs. It is primarily a slacker’s tale. While working for Pfizer, he says, “My goal was to have as much fun as possible and to make enough money to satisfy goal No. 1.”

He was, by his own description, “a young, clean-cut, good-looking, funny guy,” adept at schmoozing receptionists and nurses. In some ways, he wasn’t terribly bright; Reidy accepted Fresno as a territory because he assumed that, because it was in California, it was 20 minutes from the beach.

Still, he had no trouble understanding the candy lesson: that no one ever turned away a salesman bearing chocolate. Soon he was giving away an average of 20 jumbo bags of M&Ms a week.

“I learned that people do things for people they like, and that’s huge in the world,” he says.

It could be his boss keeping him around even though his sales figures were lousy, or a friend taking a drive on a toll road so Reidy could submit a receipt that would prove he was working on the Thursday afternoon of an unsanctioned four-day weekend.

If there was a way to circumvent systems the company put in place to keep its reps in check, Reidy did his best to find it. He sweet-talked or hoodwinked doctors into signing extra sample sheets, which he would post-date and submit as evidence that he’d been working his Indiana territory when actually at the beach in New Jersey.

For a while, he took pride in being the most skillful goof-off. He was so affable that, at sales meetings, his superiors would wonder why his numbers weren’t better.

“Since I was only working 20 hours a week, I knew why,” Reidy says, “but it’s still annoying to hear that. Eventually, it was just too much for my ego. Other sales reps I should have been running circles around were kicking my butt.”

Just in time to rescue his self-image, Reidy was selected for the V-team. The drug was introduced at a urology conference in San Diego in 1998. Pfizer had the biggest booth in the hall, and it was mobbed.

“The urologists of America did none of the normal things American doctors typically did post-FDA approval,” Reidy writes. “They didn’t want to see studies showing Viagra’s efficacy. They didn’t want detailed safety data. They didn’t even care whether the HMOs were covering it or not.”

The doctors wanted to know what dose to prescribe, what the side effects were and whether it could be used by women. Suddenly, Reidy was selling a product that didn’t need to be sold; doctors and patients were begging for it.

“We were like rock stars,” he says. “Doctors would invite us to their golf clubs and say, ‘Next time the samples come out, don’t forget about me.’ “

Before Viagra, Reidy had been as generous with drug samples as his colleagues. Every one of his friends wanted to test-drive the new pill, but he was stingy with it.

“God forbid my buddy takes one and drops dead,” he says. “Then I’m going to jail and I have to explain to his mother how he died. If I hand out antihistamines, nothing bad is going to happen to anyone.

“Reps would say their parents had Viagra parties, and each couple got to take some Viagra home. I never did anything like that.”

After five years with Pfizer, Reidy quit and accepted a job as a rep in the oncology division of Eli Lilly. He advanced to training other reps – until his book came out. When Lilly fired him, Reidy suggested the company develop a sense-of-humor pill.

Now he’s living in Manhattan Beach, taking writing courses and hoping his book will be made into a movie.

“My goal in moving to L.A. is allegedly to sell a romantic comedy screenplay,” he says. “But it’s also to live at the beach and have a great time.”

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