According to two executives close to the situation who asked not to be named, Tokyo-based Dentsu is talking to Toyota executives in Japan in an effort to wrangle some business now at Saatchi & Saatchi. Toyota is Saatchi's second-biggest client.
The move comes as reports continue to swirl that Toyota's top brass are unhappy with Saatchi's acquisition by Publicis Groupe, which handles French automaker Renault. Saatchi handles Toyota in 31 countries, including the U.S.
"There is no Saatchi problem," said Steve Sturm, VP-marketing at Toyota Motor Sales USA. He said the marketer and its dealers are very pleased with Saatchi's work. He added, however, that he's not surprised to hear reports about Dentsu talking to Toyota. "It's not the first time this rumor has come up."
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Toyota contacted Select Resources International for an undisclosed consultation. An SRI spokeswoman, however, said "it was not in connection with a review."
Both ad agencies and the auto industry have consolidated in recent years via acquisitions that resulted in agency-client conflicts. The agency holding companies maintain they have set up appropriate firewalls between networks with competing car accounts. But in the past few years, automakers have started aligning their ad accounts globally.
Saatchi has disputed that Toyota was displeased with the Publicis acquisition. In June, when the $2 billion, all-stock deal was announced, Kevin Roberts, Saatchi's CEO, said the carmaker was "happy that the deal will give Saatchi & Saatchi more international power."
A spokeswoman in Paris for Renault, which bought a controlling interest in Nissan Motor Corp. in March 1999, said the automaker has no conflict concerns with the Publicis-Saatchi deal.
In July, Renault tapped Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide for the $10 million launch of the brand in Mexico. Lowe already has Renault in Brazil, Argentina and Columbia.
Publicis' Fallon, Minneapolis, handles BMW of North America, and Publicis, New York, handles Northeast BMW dealerships. Optimedia, Publicis' media arm, buys BMW media in the U.S. In the U.S., Lowe handles General Motors Corp.'s GMC truck brand, while Publicis Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, has GM's Saturn brand.
Dentsu is Toyota's main agency in Japan, where the concept of client conflicts barely exists. Dentsu also handles Honda Motor Co. in Japan.
The agency won bits of Toyota's European business earlier this year. In May, it bested several agencies, including Saatchi and FCB Worldwide, for the automaker's estimated $40 million Lexus account in Europe. In June, Toyota tapped Dentsu's BLD subsidiary in Brussels and sibling shop Brahm, Leeds, U.K., London, for its Toyota-branded forklift account across Europe.
SEEKING FOOTHOLD IN U.S.
Dentsu for years has tried to gain a foothold in the U.S. and covets a major Japanese car account. Dentsu subsidiary Colby Effler & Partners, Santa Monica, Calif., picked up American Suzuki Motor Corp.'s $33 million car account in June without a review. The shop already had handled Suzuki's motorcycle account.
Meanwhile, Dentsu may find itself running into a head-on collision with Ford Motor Co., through its relationship with Young & Rubicam in the joint venture Dentsu Y&R, headquartered in Singapore with 45 offices throughout Europe and Asia. Y&R handles Lincoln Mercury Co. and some European Ford models; and while Dentsu Y&R does not handle Ford in particular (its accounts include AT&T Corp., Sony Electronics Corp. and Philip Morris Cos. among others), the Detroit auto manufacturer is known for not allowing its agencies to have relationships with competing brands. Publicis' attempt to acquire Y&R was scuttled largely due to the conflict between Renault and Ford.