Player Profile: Wahl grabs a bigger piece of pie with post at Toyota

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Deborah Wahl has moved to a bigger pond.

She joined Toyota Motor Sales USA's Toyota Division Nov. 19 as its first corporate marketing communications manager. Ms. Wahl, 38, will oversee national and regional advertising, as well as Internet activities and multicultural marketing.

Ms. Wahl held the marketing-communications manager post at Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Mercury arm since June 1999. She resigned suddenly in late October in what a Lincoln spokeswoman called a surprise.

"Despite having had a wonderful time at Ford, [Toyota] was a fun and exciting challenge," Ms. Wahl said of her new job. "I do know Toyota is planning a pretty aggressive campaign to really rev up the brand," she said, while pointing out she's just getting started at Toyota. She's looking forward to working with the marketer's in-house team and Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, Torrance, Calif., to take Toyota's advertising "to the next level."

She's very proud of raising the level of integration for Lincoln's sponsorship of the U.S. Open this summer vs. 2000's effort. But she admitted the brand has less than a 3% market share. "Now I get to work on a brand with 10% of the market."

The mass-market Toyota brand also spends more on advertising: $286 million in the first half of 2001 in measured media, compared to Lincoln and Mercury's $144 million in the same period, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

Steve Sturm, who as VP-marketing for Toyota is her boss, said Ms. Wahl's hiring followed an extensive internal and external search. "She's very strong, has great credentials and a great track record," Mr. Sturm said, and praised her as "an innovative, out-of-the-box thinker" who will help shape Toyota's creative strategy.

Ms. Wahl, a Detroit-area native and daughter of an auto supplier, started her marketing career in Europe, armed with a B.A. in economics from Wellesley College and a marketing M.B.A. from the Wharton School. The French-speaking marketer spent three years as a product manager for Gortex at W.L. Gore's operations in Paris. She joined Ford in 1995 and rose to car brand manager in Brazil in 1996.

Don Williams, then management director of the Ford account at the Sao Paulo office of Y&R Advertising, worked closely with Ms. Wahl to launch a small car model, the Ka, in April 1997. "She brought the best out in the agency people," he said, "But she wasn't an easy client. We had to follow strategy."

The Ka launch campaign "was largely viewed as the best work within Ford globally at the time," said Mr. Williams, now president of the WPP Group shop's Dearborn, Mich., office. And the Ka "was truly an image builder for Ford in Brazil."

Ms. Wahl's knowledge of French made it easier for her to learn Portuguese, and her Brazilian stint helped her learn the car business, but it was "a sink or swim situation. You get your feet wet quickly."

After Brazil, Ms. Wahl spent roughly two years at Mazda North American Operations, of which Ford holds a controlling interest. She was on the team that tapped Doner, Southfield, Mich., in a review in 1997. She rose to group manager-brand strategy and communications before joining Lincoln Mercury.

Although she recalled telling her father as a high schooler that she'd never work in the auto industry, she now feels "there's nothing more passionate."

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