TBWA’s True Raising ‘Transcultural’ Flag

Nissan North America looked at some 27 agencies last year in its search for a successor to Carol H. Williams Advertising, which had gone to work for General Motors.

The review for $20 million in African American ad duties came down a few traditional minority shops and True, an eclectic multicultural startup whose principals hail from publishing, MTV and Wall Street, as well as advertising. True pitched an approach that Nissan sought: to broaden the brand’s appeal among young, urban drivers, not just African Americans, recalls Jon Cropper, client senior manager of youth and urban communications.

Still, True, which was backed by TBWA Worldwide, Nissan’s lead agency in the U.S., existed only on paper. The decision to hire the shop in July 2002 was a leap of faith.

“It was definitely a risk,” Cropper acknowledged last week. But he was a fan of Trace, the trendspotting magazine that True chairman Claude Grunitzky launched (as True) in 1995, and he knew executive creative director Christopher Davis from the mid-1990s, when they were colleagues at MTV. Cropper and Davis also partnered as youth marketing consultants from 1997-98.

True, which also includes president and CEO Rich Wayner and COO Valencia Gayles, has more than lived up to Cropper’s expectations, producing two ongoing campaigns around the Altima sedan that blend traditional and guerrilla ads. One effort, dubbed “Electric Moyo,” had a spoken-word poet use an enhanced Altima to interview cultural “influencers” in 10 cities. Those interviews became content for radio ads, and the poet is helping to create a syndicated radio show.

Another campaign, “Who Are You,” began in January with TV and print ads and evolved this month into “theater jams” in several cities, in which actors stood up at screenings of The Matrix Revolutions to respond to an ad onscreen.

True is ramping up for an even busier 2004, with work in the pipe for several models, including Murano, Pathfinder Armada, Altima and Nissan luxury brand Infiniti. Not bad for a few hungry thirtysomethings who had little more than a business plan 16 months ago. “[Nissan] is an internationally known brand,” acknowledged Wayner, 36, a former Goldman Sachs executive. “Obviously, we would not have gotten here this quickly” without Nissan.

Another key boost came from TBWA. In addition to helping with the Nissan pitch, the network’s U.S. arm, TBWA\Chiat\Day, shared insights on the brand and provided space in its Playa del Rey, Calif., office for 13 True staffers, including Davis, 38, and Gayles, 37.

“The idea was, ‘Let’s be truly together,’ ” said Tom Carroll, TBWA’s president of the Americas. Another six True staffers who work in New York’s SoHo district plan to relocate in January to TBWA\C\D’s Madison Avenue office.

The entities have been operating on a handshake agreement but are about to sign a contract under which TBWA will take a one-third stake and True’s founders will divide the rest.

Carroll also recruited Gayles, True’s most classically trained leader. Most recently, she was an account director on Toyota at Saatchi & Saatchi. Before that she worked for Carroll at TBWA\C\D’s L.A. office. Her account duties back then included Apple, where Steve Wilhite, now Nissan’s vp of marketing, was vp of marketing communications. Gayles felt True represented a “unique opportunity” to “bring people of color into the business,” and she was intrigued by talk of creating “transcultural” work that would entertain as well as entice.

Gayles manages day-to-day operations. Grunitzky, 32, is seen as the thought leader and conduit to hot trends as editor in chief of Trace, a bimonthly now published in the U.S., U.K. and France. He says the transcultural approach is based on cultural affinities rather than racial, ethnic or gender boundaries. Wayner said it flows from the “broader hip-hop, R&B and reggae nation … [that] has satellites around the world. … It’s bigger than one race. It’s bigger than one city. It’s bigger than even one country. I think it’s the positive side of globalism.”

Davis, who oversees creative development, cut his teeth as an art director at MTV. The self-described “creative ninja” cites Miles Davis as an influence, owing to “the idea of bending notes, ignoring the score.”

Grunitzky, an ambassador’s son who was born in Togo, said he finds inspiration in 18th century French author Alexis de Tocqueville. Grunitzky has a book of his own due out this spring: Transculturalism: How the World Is Coming Together, a book of essays by various writers. The cover features an 11-year-old girl who is Jamaican, German and Chinese and speaks three languages. “That image represents the hybrid identities” of today’s consumer, said Grunitzky.