The complete God, Guts, Heartbreak & Headaches: The Start of Lexus blog series is now available as a free e-book:

#37 – Team One Comes Out of Nowhere

by | Sep 8, 2016

Everyone thinks they are experts when it comes to advertising—especially auto executives.


Yuki Togo and the Japan staff wanted a small, boutique advertising agency that would give special attention to Lexus and have new, creative ideas to attract customers. Jim Perkins cared more about who the creative people were in the agency and was not concerned about its name or size. Bob McCurry wanted a big agency for media buying efficiency and a no-nonsense, product-only approach.


Honda’s advertising was handled by Rubin Postaer and Associates. The Acura account was awarded to a different agency, Ketchum Advertising. The Nissan advertising was handled by Chiat/Day. Infiniti was rumored to have a different agency ready to announce.


Toyota’s advertising agency was Saatchi & Saatchi and was considered off limits. We identified six different agencies not associated with Saatchi to compete for the Lexus business. We set up a scoring system to rank them, much like we did with the dealership selection process. The advertising scoring, however, was much more complicated than the dealership scoring. There were 12 requirements, each weighted according to importance. Media buying efficiency and automotive advertising experience were the two most important of the 12, while direct mail expertise was weighted as least important. The maximum score an agency could achieve was 305.


The highest score of the six agencies competing for the Lexus business was only 156.  The biggest shortfall for most of the agencies was lack of automotive experience. All of the large, experienced agencies were already taken by other car companies and had non-compete clauses. 


The frustration was building when TMC Japan complicated things even more. TMC North American Department recommended the use of Toyota’s advertising agency in Japan, Densu. This got everyone’s attention and put a sense of urgency into solving the agency issue in the U.S.


Jan Thompson, the new marketing operation manager for Lexus, came up with an idea out of nowhere that would save the day: approach Saatchi & Saatchi about starting a new agency separate from Toyota that would be dedicated to handling only Lexus. This new agency could take advantage of the buying power of the parent company Saatchi & Saatchi, would be familiar with Toyota, and would have automotive experience. It would be custom-designed to meet the special needs of Lexus without the complications of being shared with the much larger Toyota account.


A new agency dedicated to Lexus with ties to Saatchi scored 295 points out of 305. The Japan staff, Jim Perkins, and Bob McCurry all liked the idea, and the paperwork was signed off by management committing to hire the new satellite agency of Saatchi. It was first called Saatchi & Saatchi Group One but then changed to Team One Advertising.


Scott Gilbert was named the executive vice president/management director. Tom Cordner was hired several months later as vice president/creative director. In the coming years the three of us would get thrown out of Bob McCurry’s office countless times. Team One’s early advertising would be challenged by national television consumer advocate David Horowitz, and every marketing move Lexus/Team One made in those early years would be compared to Infiniti and its agency Hill/Holliday. It would prove to be an exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, and rewarding experience—but never dull.


We don’t always understand God’s plan—but we know He is protecting us, and He gives us hope in uncertainty. Read the God of Hope book to learn more about His unchanging love.


David Wager was named president of the new Team One agency. In an early interview with Adweek magazine, Wager was quoted saying, “Nobody wants to work for a car agency all of their life. We want to be recognized as a full-service national agency. We would like to pick up an account east of Nevada first, to show off the company’s national skills.”


I was angry. Team One was to be dedicated to launching Lexus, and they were already talking about expanding before we had even started. Our new agency’s president didn’t want to work for a car company? This was not a good start. But I controlled my anger at this time because we had a more important issue to address.


“Sensible people control their anger.” Proverbs 19:11 (NLT)


What good was an advertising agency if you didn’t have a name? In early 1989, Jim Perkins accompanied me to visit Jack Simpson at Lexis in Dayton, Ohio. The Toyota attorneys assured us that Jim would be receiving an offer that we could bring back for management to consider. It was a cold January day, but the cold outside was no match for the frigid reception we got inside.


(To be continued in “Lexis vs. Lexus Round 2: False Hopes”)