Less than a year old and largely unknown, Traffic is part-owned by The Cimarron Group, but still has car credentials: The shop is led by co-chairmen Robert Farina and Tom Cordner. The latter is a longtime auto advertising executive, serving on both the Lexus account at Team One, El Segundo, Calif., and the Ford account at JWT Detroit, where he was co-president of the agency.
Traffic faced off against three other West Coast shops: Omnicom Group's DDB, Los Angeles, and two other non-network shops, Ignited and WongDoody, Los Angeles, according to executives familiar with the matter.
Credit for creativity
"The creativity of all the finalists was remarkable," Dan Kuhnert, the automaker's exec VP-sales and marketing, said in a statement. "They all demonstrated insight into the Mitsubishi brand, and had great ideas. However, Traffic presents a keen understanding of how to leverage the strengths of our brand and the 'importance of now,' which is extremely relevant in today's auto industry."
The review was launched in March during the final few weeks of the automaker's contract with Omnicom's BBDO West, Los Angeles, which won the account three years ago. BBDO did not try to defend the business.
The review also coincided with a new three-year global business plan Mitsubishi Motors has begun, and comes at a time when it is closely watching costs.
The search, overseen by California-based consultancy Select Resources International, affected only the U.S.; BBDO's Toronto office will continue to handle marketing duties in Canada. Mitsubishi Motors America's media agency, Omnicom's PHD, Los Angeles, was not impacted by the review.
Big breaks not unheard-of
Auto-industry clients moving their marketing accounts from bigger shops to smaller and lesser-known ones isn't unprecedented; Jeep moved its creative account to upstart Cutwater, San Francisco, last year, and Kia Motors America back in 1999 shifted its account to independent David & Goliath without a review.
John Bulcroft, president of Advisory Group and a former auto marketer, said he sees no problem with a startup winning a car account and said it's not that unusual. "As long as you got a person with good auto experience, you can buy the rest of it," he said. And a startup will be cheaper for a carmaker since the auto client will be the agency's biggest, he said. "The client won't have the B.S. of a large organization to fight its way through for attention."
Mitsubishi spent $155 million in U.S. measured media in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
The automaker, which hit the financial skids several years ago after overly generous incentives, was showing signs of a rebound last year with a U.S. car sales increase of 8% over 2006 to 128,993 vehicles.
But, amid the worst year for the U.S. auto industry in a decade, sales have slumped again: In the first five months of 2008, Mitsubishi Motors America's U.S. new-vehicle sales are off by 19% to 46,389 units.