How This Lot Got $155M Mitsubishi Account

Unknown, 6-Month-Old Independent Wins With Chemistry, Creative Strategy, Research

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DETROIT ( -- Start-up ad agency Traffic wasn't even registered with Select Resources International when Mitsubishi Motors North America hired the consultant a few months ago to conduct its national creative and digital review. So how is it the unknown, 6-month-old independent with virtually no clients managed to walk away with the automaker's $155 million account last week?
Traffic execs: (From l.) Mike Tankel, Heidi Roberts, Tom Cordner and John Powers.
Traffic execs: (From l.) Mike Tankel, Heidi Roberts, Tom Cordner and John Powers.

Well, it pays to have some contacts -- Traffic co-Chairman Tom Cordner is a longtime auto executive who knows the executive adviser to Mitsubishi's CEO and Catherine Bension, President-CEO of Select. And it doesn't hurt that start-up agencies generally cost less than large networks. But by all accounts, the decision came down to three things: chemistry, creative strategy and consumer research.

Francine Harsini, Mitsubishi advertising director, said not only did the automaker click with Traffic, but the shop presented "very sound strategy," breakthrough work and "new insights into our target audience" that landed it ahead of the three other finalists. "You know when you have a team you're going to work well with," she said. "We're really looking for a strategic partnership."

It's a relationship that started out rather serendipitously for Traffic. John Powers, president of the Hollywood, Calif., startup, said it was Select's Ms. Bension who called Traffic "out of the blue" to join the pitch. "There was no inside connection" for the review, which was handled by him and three other core agency executives, he said.

Ms. Harsini said she'd never met Mr. Powers or the other two guys on Traffic's pitch team before the review. Although Heidi Roberts, the fourth team member, had a stint at BBDO West, Ms. Harsini said she never ran into her during the time BBDO, New York handled her account as VP-advertising at DirecTV.

Linked in
Mr. Cordner said both he and agency co-Chairman Bob Farina knew Ms. Bension, who could not be reached for comment. Mr. Cordner said he also knows John Koenig, hired in January as exec VP and executive adviser to Mitsubishi CEO Hiroshi Harunari.

Mr. Koenig, who was also unavailable for comment, sat in on the presentations. He retired in 2001 after 24 years at Toyota Motor Sales USA, which is where the Cordner connection came in -- Mr. Cordner spent nearly 15 years at Team One, El Segundo, on Toyota's Lexus account (he also spent four years at JWT, Detroit as worldwide creative director on Ford).

Traffic was hatched early this year several months after Mr. Cordner met Mr. Farina, also CEO and co-founder of Cimarron Group, who was looking to expand his client base from major-motion-picture advertising and took a stake in the shop. At first Mr. Farina didn't even like the name Traffic, but Mr. Cordner persuaded him.

Traffic now has 27 employees, some of whom were shifted from Cimarron, including Mike Tankel, one of Traffic's core team. He's now chief innovation officer Traffic after leaving his post as senior VP- marketing innovation at Cimarron.

Time behind the wheel
The agency has project work from clients such as Korean Air and other small clients that Mr. Cordner declined to identify. But it has plenty of car experience.

Mr. Cordner hired Mr. Powers at Team One, and he worked as management director of the Lexus dealers association during Mr. Cordner's last seven years at the agency. Mr. Tankel spent seven years as senior VP-director of direct and internet marketing at Suissa Miller Advertising when the shop handled Acura and created branded entertainment for Lotus at Cimarron.

Traffic assumes the digital, national and regional dealer creative account July 1. Omnicom Group's PHD still handles media buying and planning after Mitsubishi moved media oversight of PHD from sibling DaVinci a few months ago, a move that saved the automaker hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, according to an executive close to the situation.
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