Tom Burrell said he doubts his agency would ever produce an ad featuring a gold inlay on the tooth of an African American man.
But the CEO of Burrell Communications admits even his shop, one of the oldest African American agencies in the country, is not immune to an occasional misfire in its efforts to attract an ethnic target.
"Appealing to the African American market is a very delicate issue," Burrell said. "There's a very fine line between offensiveness and effectiveness."
Saatchi & Saatchi, the lead agency for Burrell's newest client, Toyota, was deemed to have crossed that line earlier this summer by Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson threatened a boycott of the automaker over a Saatchi ad that showed a tooth with a gold inlay of a Toyota RAV4. As part of a settlement to placate Jackson, Toyota launched a search for a minority agency.
Toyota said it contacted 22 shops and selected six finalists before choosing Burrell, 49 percent of which is owned by Saatchi parent Publicis.
As part of its agreement with Jackson, Toyota promised to spend $8 billion over 10 years on minority efforts, including marketing. Up to 10 percent of its $400 million annual budget may be aimed at minorities. That money—some $40-50 million—will be split between Burrell, the agency's first African American shop, and its Hispanic agency, Conill Advertising, said Steve Sturm, vice president of marketing for Toyota Motor Sales USA.
Burrell's last auto experience was with Ford, which it handled until about 1990. Some of its staff have worked in the category, but Burrell said the agency has focused on its ability to get into the ethnic consumer's head.
Burrell declined to talk specifically about Saatchi's gold tooth ad. "That was a question to be asked six months ago; it's time to move on," he said.
The agency's pitch was led by Fay Ferguson, managing director of marketing, who said the brand already has a strong following among blacks because of its reputation for reliability. "Given the makeup of the market, with a lot of female heads of household, [reliability is] important," Ferguson said.
With reliability seen as a given, the agency intends a more emotional appeal that will fit with Saatchi's general-market approach.
The shop also plans to increase Toyota's community and promotions efforts that are designated for African Americans.
Sturm said the automaker had considered hiring an African American shop in the past, even before the threatened boycott forced a review.
"There's always an opportunity to expand our image in the African American community," he said.