How a Startup Shop Won Over Mitsubishi

LOS ANGELES Within hours of learning that Mitsubishi Motors North America would park its $185 million creative account at Traffic, his Cimarron Group-backed startup shop, principal and CCO Tom Cordner got another sign that his Ford days were over. Driving through the El Cajon Mountain pass back to Los Angeles, his rented Edge broke down, temporarily stranding him on the road back to creative prominence.

Still, the ecd who put Lexus on the map at Publicis Groupe’s Team One knew he was on a roll. This time Mitsubishi had made the “bold move,” the theme developed under Cordner when he was worldwide cd on Ford at WPP Group’s JWT, Detroit, from 2003-06. Cordner moved back to L.A., resigned the JWT post, “decompressed” and thought of starting his own agency, one “committed to blurring the line between traditional and non-traditional media.”

“We were looking for an agency close to home, with top-level executive involvement on our day-to-day-business,” said Francine Harsini, director of advertising at MMNA, Cypress, Calif. “We wanted Mitsubishi to be a significant part of the agency’s portfolio. Traffic is the right size, flexible and nimble. That’s necessary in today’s business world.”

Cordner said that was the idea. “Traffic is a new model. We will strike a blend between traditional and new media and really integrate the two. The big agencies and the digital shops are on to it, but they are bolting on something to their core strengths,” he said. Cordner promised to bring Mitsubishi “big, strategic ideas,” not “empty tricks.”

Six months ago Traffic wasn’t considered a contender for a coveted automotive account — it didn’t even exist. Cordner was looking for work when his buddies at TBWA\Chiat\Day encouraged his startup dreams, directing him to an ex-TBWA field operations man, Steve Bland, who had moved to Cimarron Group, a Hollywood movie-marketing agency with a staff of 150 and designs on the general market.

But it wouldn’t be an easy deal to make. Cimarron CEO Bob Farina had tried this twice before. In 2004, he hired Nigel Williams, a former cd on Mazda and Nissan, to expand the portfolio and land a car. Despite a flirtation with Lotus, Williams left the shop last August, without success. Next, Farina tried and failed to form an alliance with Siltanen & Partners, a boutique led by car guys Rob Siltanen and Tim Murphy.

For Cimarron, the third time was the charm: Farina and Cordner created a separate entity, Traffic, giving them a virtual shop capable of variable size, and hired as its president John Powers, who made his mark working on Lexus’s dealer channel. Things immediately clicked into place: In February, Traffic won a $12 million piece of Toyota Financial Services, a possibly conflicted account whose status now is undetermined. Toyota declined to comment.

Mitsubishi’s decision is starting to make sense to industry watchers. “The biggest risk for Mitsubishi would be not taking a risk,” said TBWA ecd Rob Schwartz, who worked for Cordner at Team One. “They have proven creative integrity in Tom; Powers knows the retail channel; and Cimarron is hungry to prove it can run with the big boys.” Schwartz said that means the shop “might be less focused on the ad industry and more focused on selling cars.”

Russel Wohlwerth, principal at consultancy Ark Advisors here, also lauded the choice. “Our industry always talks about the need for new business models, then pooh-poohs it when someone tries,” he said. “Mitsubishi obviously is facing business battles and saying the status quo is not going to work for us. “