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Interview with Jamie Reidy, former Viagra sales rep and author of "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman"

Wednesday, October 05, 2005 by: Jessica Smith
Tags: pharmaceutical sales, pharmaceutical industry, Big Pharma

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Editor's note: We include this interview with Jamie Reidy, a pharmaceutical sales rep, to give you a flavor of what really goes on behind the scenes at Big Pharma. See for yourself the lack of ethics, the abuse of the system, and the heavy emphasis placed on profits. Learn how the drug companies rewarded this behavior and named Reidy their #1 drug rep. And then ask yourself, is this a system that cares one bit about patients? Decide for yourself, and be sure to check out the book, "Hard Sell."

Jamie Reidy was a pharmaceutical rep for nine years when he wrote "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman." The book details his years working for Pfizer and selling arguably the hottest drug of the nineties, Viagra. Reidy made an art out of being a pharmaceutical rep, finding ways to use and abuse the system so he was making $100,000 a year peddling prescription drugs part time.

Smith: First of all, I just wanted you to talk about how you became a drug rep, because I know you went to Notre Dame, right?

Jamie Reidy: Yes.

Smith: And you went into the military right after that?

Reidy: Exactly, yeah. I was in ROTC in college. And so after I served my commitment on active duty, I got out and didn't really know what I was going to do, I was just going to kind of wing it, and I started to get a lot of heat from my dad about getting a real job. Even back then, I wanted to be a writer, but I just kind of panicked under the parental and societal pressure to get a real job and get your life going. Pfizer loves ex-military officers.

Smith: Why is that? You said military, minorities, and…

Reidy: Mormons.

Smith: Mormons? I don't know why those three groups would strike their interest.

Reidy: Yeah, the military part is that Pfizer assumes that former military officers are self-starters who can be trusted to get up every day and go do their job, because one of the unique things about pharmaceutical sales is that we don't go to a company office everyday. Everyone works from their house and then has their own sales territory. So, no one ever knows where you are.

Smith: So it's kind of freelance, where you set your own hours, and kind of have to be self-motivated?

Reidy: Yeah, so it shouldn't be like freelance -- they want you to be working from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. But it's freelance in the sense that nobody has any idea whether I'm doing that or not. So, they thought they could inherently trust former military officers as honest, hardworking guys who can be trusted to get up early and go do their job. And then the other thing that I learned later on is that military officers are also used to taking orders and Pfizer's sales pitches were very drilled down from the top, and everybody was supposed to repeat the same thing all the time.

Smith: Would it be the same reasoning for Mormons? Because all the Mormons I knew had to get up early and start hitting the street and going to people's houses, so would that be kind of the same line of thought?

Reidy: It's more go to people's houses in foreign countries. So what was explained to me is that if you could sell religion in a foreign language, then you can sell anything, because most Mormons do a two-year mission someplace. So that was the key there. Actually, pretty insightful, I think, when you think about it.

Smith: Yeah, the kind of mindset that they were looking for in their representatives?

Reidy: I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that. I certainly never heard anybody say that out loud. I think someone can maybe make that leap, but I wouldn't say that. I think it's just… I mean, think about how much confidence it takes to go knock on a door in a foreign country and try to get somebody to convert to your religion. They obviously get told "No" a lot, which is great, because we get told "No" a lot, so it's just great preparation.

Smith: Okay, so you were approached at your school by a recruiter, or was it through ROTC that you met a recruiter?

Reidy: No, when I was getting out of the Army, I just sent my résumé to a headhunter who specialized in military officers who were getting out, and they sent it to Pfizer and Pfizer jumped all over it.

Smith: So your job interview -- I know they have an office here, but their main office is…

Reidy: Yeah, their main office is 42nd and 2nd (in New York City), but I interviewed in Chicago, actually.

Smith: Okay. What was the interview process like? What kind of things did they try to get out of you to determine whether you're their kind of person?

Reidy: They want to make sure basically that you're confident and present yourself in a good light, and can answer tough questions and think on your feet. Anytime that anybody asks me about getting into pharmaceutical sales, I say, "All right, well, can you see yourself walking into a lunchroom in front of 30 strangers and standing up and directing the conversation? Because if you can't, then you can't be in pharmaceutical sales, because that's what they have to do a lot."

Smith: So their number one thing that they're looking for is confidence?

Reidy: I'd say so.

Smith: So once you got the position, how long did it take you to figure out that you didn't need to be one of the people that woke up at 7:30 a.m. and finished at 5 p.m. every day? Because it seems like you figured out pretty quickly how to work their system.

Reidy: In the first week I figured out, you know, if I hit snooze more times than I should, no one knows, and then it really just completely multiplied from there. It was everything. I could be heading to Chicago at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon and nobody would know, and it got to the point where I could be in London for three days, and they'd think I was in Fort Wayne, Indiana. And as long as I set it up correctly, nobody would know.

Smith: How did you do it? What were some of the tricks you had -- because you were an awesome representative, but you weren't doing that much work for it, so what were your tricks?

Reidy: The first trick is manipulating the voice mail system, and sending voice mails to your boss about sales calls that you had, that may or may not be fictional. Like for instance, driving to Chicago on a Friday afternoon, and saying, oh, I just had this unbelievable call, blah blah blah, or I heard this, the competitors are saying this. Anytime you leave a message like that for your boss without prompting, they think, "Oh, yeah, he's working hard, why else am I getting these voice mails?" The second way is to make sure -- every time you drop off samples, you have to get a signature from a doctor, just as a sort of chain of custody thing so that legally the doctors are taking possession of the samples. But then it's also a paper trail for the drug companies to check to make sure people are actually working, because they would say you need to get, let's say, nine signatures a day, meaning nine different…

Smith: You've got to hit nine offices.

Reidy: Yeah, or if you hit one big group that has six doctors, they're all there that day; you just worked two-thirds of your day. But what you do is you get signatures and you save it for a rainy day, and you set it up so when you're in London, or wherever, you can say, "What do you mean I wasn't working? I got nine signatures that day." And the last way is to have friends jump on the toll road and drive 10 miles one way, get off the exit, pay the toll, get back on, drive home, get off the exit, pay the toll -- now you have two paper receipts to prove that you were driving.

Smith: You said you always knew you wanted to be a writer. You kind of had the perfect job for someone who is just looking for some money and always wants some free time to pursue other things. Pharmaceutical repping is a really well-paying job for not a lot of work if you're a smart person.

Reidy: Without question the best day job in history. If you're an aspiring rock star, or writer, or artist, you can't get a better job. I mean, the last, let's see, the last six years I was in, I made $100,000 a year, for 24 hours a week.

Smith: Wow. So how long total were you a drug rep?

Reidy: Nine years. Four and a half with Pfizer, then when I left Pfizer I went to work at Eli Lilly, and I was there for four and a half years, and then when the book came out they fired me.

Smith: So what did you do with all your time when you weren't doing this? Were you traveling?

Reidy: Yeah, I was goofing around, doing a little writing, but not nearly enough. I didn't take advantage of the time. I mean, when you read the book, you'll see. I wasn't a very focused guy. I should be on my fifth book by now, it's really embarrassing. So, I just goofed around, went to movies. I mean, I could have had a second job, I really could have.

Smith: But why would you when you're making so much money?!

Reidy: Exactly, there you go.

Smith: So you worked for Pfizer first, and when you started, is that when Viagra came out?

Reidy: Viagra came out like, two and a half years after I started.

Smith: And at one point you were the top salesman?

Reidy: Yeah, when I left Pfizer, I was number one, overall. And this is something that, when the paperback edition comes out I've got to clarify at the end, because I can see why people would think that I say I was the number one Viagra guy. Pharmaceutical sales are kind of like the decathlon in the Olympics -- you sell three or four different drugs, and to win the decathlon you don't have to finish first place in every race. You just have to do the best overall. You know, second place here, fifth place here, third place, and then they add up all the points, and you figure out who wins the gold medal in the decathlon. Pharmaceutical sales are the same way. I was pretty good in all three drugs, and all told, that made me the number one rep in the country. You follow me?

Smith: I follow you. But the focus of the book is your sales for Viagra.

Reidy: Yeah, the focus of the book is how everything in pharmaceutical sales works. How you can make it look like you're working when you're not working. I never should have gotten promoted to sell Viagra, because my sales numbers were pretty mediocre, but I fell through the cracks -- wonderful cracks in the system -- and got promoted, and the last third of the book is all about me selling Viagra, and what it was like.

Smith: Now, is it because there was just so much publicity about Viagra at that time that it made it the most interesting drug to talk about?

Reidy: Absolutely. That was part of the problem for me; one of the things that was delaying me from pursuing being a writer is that I was looking for my story, and the story of a drug rep and behind-the-scenes in pharmaceutical sales -- that's interesting, but it's not enough to carry a whole book. Once I got promoted to sell Viagra, and it became the media phenomenon that it was, then I had my hook, and I said, "Okay, this is something that people are going to want to read about."

Smith: I also noticed that it said you started self-diagnosing? Can you talk about that? Can you explain that?

Reidy: Yeah, I did it for everyone. I used to sell allergy medications, and sold antibiotics, and if my friends had the sniffles, I'd give them antibiotics, or allergy pills -- I'd give all that out. So I became a de facto doctor. It was just a little bit of information that made me think I was a doctor and I could give out medicines.

Smith: You also said that doctors started treating you kind of like a colleague. Is the line starting to be kind of blurry between drug sales reps and doctors, or did your friends just trust your diagnoses?

Reidy: What happened is, drug reps are experts on their drugs and their competitors' drugs. So it can be an asset to doctors if they're like, "Hey, I'm thinking about drug Y for this patient." I can say, "Oh, you know what? In Hispanic diabetics, that drug doesn't work well." And that's really the benefit that drug reps are bringing to the table, because they're providing a resource of information. But, see, if you and I are friends and you had allergies, "Oh, here, take my drug!" If I charged you 10 bucks, you'd be like, "No! What are you on? I'm not paying you for that." But if I'm going to give you something free, you're going to tell me, "Okay, Dr. Reidy, sounds good, thanks!" It's just that the availability of free samples increases a person's comfort level. I mean, drug reps are always taking other drugs from sample closets to treat whatever illness they or their family members have.

Smith: So did your friends ever ask you for Viagra samples?

Reidy: Oh my God -- 24/7! It was hilarious.

Smith: Almost at that point, you knew people took it recreationally?

Reidy: Yeah, it's good stuff!

Smith: I could imagine that if you're young, you have friends that are young, and you have that sort of access to it...

Reidy: Yeah, but that's actually the funny thing. I just annoyed my friends to no end, because I wouldn't give out Viagra samples, because I thought, "You know what, with my luck, one of you guys is going to drop dead of a heart attack, and not only am I going to jail, I'm going to have to explain to your mom why you died. I just don't want to have that conversation." So they were still like, "This is complete BS, Jamie! You will give us allergy samples out the wazoo, and you won't give us the greatest drug ever!" And I'd say, "Yes, that is correct."

Smith: Now, on that subject, your book is funny, but it also sort of hits on some of the bad parts of being a drug rep, do you know what I mean? There's actually some really dubious stuff going on with the relationships between drug reps and doctors -- did that bother you while you were a salesman? Now people know that Viagra can make people go blind, that it has serious side effects. So was that something that bothered you at the time? Did you ever think that people are taking too many drugs?

Reidy: I think there are some drugs that are definitely over-prescribed, like antibiotics and antidepressants. I don't think it's possible to over-prescribe Viagra, just in the sense that people are looking to improve their sexual experience, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

Smith: I think there are women that would probably say it is possible to over-prescribe Viagra.

Reidy: I think if what Viagra did was increase desire, then I could see why that would be a problem. But whether guys are looking to legitimately improve vitality to their relationship, or just make it better, I mean, hopefully if it's better for the guy then it would be better for the partner as well, I'm hoping.

Smith: Did other things bother you? I've seen there's this website that's sort of a message board for drug reps?

Reidy: Café Pharma?

Smith: Yeah. I was looking at that, and it seems like they complain a lot about how the public perceives them. They don't like other people looking in on that board because I think they feel like there's a really negative connotation to that job now, just because of the urban legends of paid trips for doctors, etc.

Reidy: Sure.

Smith: Did you think about that, did that bother you? How did your friends react when you got this job?

Reidy: Back then, 10 years ago, my friends were like, "Oh, I heard you can make a lot of money at that job." I don't think there's any questioning the fact that stock prices of pharmaceutical companies have done nothing for the last four or five years. I don't think it's a coincidence that all of a sudden everybody's down on the pharmaceutical companies when stockholders aren't making any money. In the mid- to-late 90s, when every drug stock was doing well, the pharmaceutical industry was the darling of the country. And now, oh wow, stock prices are down. Oh yeah, they're bastards! They're just out to screw us. No one complained about drug prices so vociferously back then.

I think one of the problems I always had was just, "What am I doing here?" I walk into the lobby or the waiting room, and everybody looks at me, like, "You SOB -- my doctor's going to be 20 minutes late for my appointment because he's sitting there BS-ing with you." And it's true -- I mean, it's a weird feeling. You'd better be bringing some value, or you hope you're bringing value to the patients to make it worthwhile for the doctor to take that time out to talk to you, as a rep. But the problem is -- this is so funny that we're talking about this, because I just thought about this yesterday -- I wish I had put a sentence in the book that explains that the problem is that everybody is trained to think and claim to be doing the right thing. That they're looking out for the doctors and patient's best interest. But every drug rep has been trained that their drug is the best. So, when everybody's coming to the doctor saying their drug is the best, well, how could that be? Somebody's drug isn't the best.

Smith: But when you're being trained, is that the company line that you're actually helping people? What's the balance between them saying you're doing a good thing, and you having to push what we're selling?

Reidy: Well, they're all tied together. We want to do the right thing here by pushing drug X, because drug X is…

Smith: Because we're the best.

Reidy: Drug X is the best thing for these patients. So it's a great service. When that's true, like when I was at Pfizer, every drug I sold was either number 1 or 1A. You know what I mean? Like, there wasn't really a difference between the best drug and our drug. I mean, it could be argued that our drug was not the best, but it wasn't a wide margin. So, you could very easily look in the mirror and say, "Yeah, I am doing the right thing by patients because my drugs kick ass." And that's a great feeling -- you're both helping patients get better and you're making money.

Smith: Did you ever start to question that toward the end? It seems like you started thinking about the book pretty early. So was there a point where you really questioned that?

Reidy: No, I was really lucky at Pfizer because the drugs I sold were all either the best or right there. But when I was at another company and I had to sell a horseshit drug, then I had a lot of problems. I had to get out of that company, if not out of the industry. Because then you're like, "What am I doing here? I am trying to talk doctors into using a substandard drug for his patients?" And that's shady.

Smith: So you did feel pretty good as a drug rep, about what you were selling, at least under Pfizer?

Reidy: Yes, and at Lilly also. The chemotherapy I sold at Lilly was great.

Smith: At what point when you were at Eli Lilly did you get your book contract or seriously start pursuing finding an agent and writing this book?

Reidy: Yeah, let's see -- I left Pfizer five years ago in May of 2000, I started working for Lilly that fall of 2000, and it was during the four months that I had off that I started writing the book. So, pretty much the entire process of writing was at Lilly.

Smith: Did you just sort of do it on the sly? I couldn't imagine you wanting to tell anyone you worked with what you were about to do.

Reidy: Right, yeah, it was totally top secret. And the funny thing was, I got rejected by more than 26 agents, so I got published without an agent, which is even more miraculous. So, when I got the contract, it was March of '04, and they waited a year before the book came out. It was just incredible trying to keep my mouth shut for a year, because I'm a pretty yappy guy to begin with, and to have to keep that secret was quite a challenge.

Smith: Now, did you get let go from Eli Lilly when they found out about the book?

Reidy: Yeah, they were very unhappy, and they fired me.

Smith: How did they find out? Was it just when it came out, or did you finally break the news to them right before it?

Reidy: I gave them a heads-up two weeks beforehand, and they didn't really do anything. In fact, two people said, "Congratulations!" And then when the book came out, finally, some other people started reading it, some email started going around, and finally the powers that be were like, "We really need to take a look at this." And then they just hit the roof. They were very unhappy with it. By that point I was a sales trainer at Lilly, so my job was to train others how to do their jobs, and they thought it was just a very bad image for a trainer to write this book that gleefully details how to make it look like you're working when you're not working.

Smith: So is the part that bothered them the most was that it might leave the wrong impression with future trainees; that they could get away with less work? That bothered them more than you talking about the industry as a whole?

Reidy: Yeah, because I didn't really bash the industry in the book. That was one of my things; I didn't want to be a whistleblower. I thought it would be really unreal to say, "Hey, I've been doing this for nine years and these are all the things that are wrong!" People would say, "Well, asshole, if you thought that, why did you work there for nine years?" So I didn't ever want anyone to say that. I wanted to write a funny, funny book, that also opens a lot of peoples' eyes to what happens, but I didn't really trash the industry too badly, or really at all. I just tell my story, and then people can extrapolate that how they want.

I mean, I don't think people think I'm the only rep in America that slept late and quit early. They can probably figure out that. But I had an interview with the guy on NPR's Marketplace, and he says to me, "Well surely you aren't the only one doing this." And I said to him, "Am I the smartest guy you ever met?" He just sat back in his seat and started laughing, and that was the last line in the interview.

Smith: But it's kind of a compliment to the book that it got around so quickly and that people were reading it in the company. That someone was reading it and that they thought it could be a problem.

Reidy: Yeah, that was great. And actually their firing me, while initially embarrassing, turned out to be the best thing ever, because it created so much publicity for me, and the book.

Smith: Thanks for taking the time talk to me.

Reidy: Thank you.

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