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Toyota Looks Beyond Saatchi

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Toyota Motor Sales USA is looking for an agency to market its youth-oriented cars using the Internet and a variety of other nontraditional means, sources said.

Saatchi & Saatchi, Torrance, Calif., which has handled the car maker's account for nearly 25 years, is vying for the new assignment along with several undisclosed shops, according to sources. Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Scott Gilbert referred questions about the account to the client.

The automaker's vp of marketing, Steve Sturm, would acknowledge only that the company is planning an announcement regarding its youth initiative in the "near term."

The car maker's decision to look beyond Saatchi comes amid reports of strained relations between the agency and the client. Most notable, sources said, Toyota's new corporate marketing communications man ager, Deborah Wahl, has clashed with the shop's management since she arrived at Toyota's Torrance headquarters in November.

Wahl was previously marketing-communications man ager at Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Mercury division, which she joined in mid-1999. She resigned suddenly in late October. "She is extremely smart but highly demanding," said one source who has worked with Wahl. "I don't think Saatchi is in any jeopardy of losing the account, but the decision to put even a small portion of it into review has to be disconcerting."

But sources said the rift with Wahl was unrelated to the decision to put a portion of the account in review. "There are two separate things that are being handled by two separate groups of people at Toyota," one said.

One executive said the assignment will involve Toyota's lower-priced cars, including the Echo, and may include models currently sold outside the U.S. that will launch domestically. Initially, the program would break in a limited number of markets with a budget as small as $10 million, said the executive.

Appealing to young consumers has long been a challenge for Toyota. According to a source, the company formed a research group called Genesis about two years ago to explore new ways to catch the eye of the youth market, particularly first-time buyers.

"Toyota has always been seen as a practical, safe car that offers good value, but you never hear people call these cars 'hip,' 'cool' or 'chic,' " said the source. "That has always been a big issue with the company, and I'm sure that will be high on the agenda of whatever shop handles the new assignment."