Lexus on the realities of putting a creative agency in its headquarters

Lexus is two years into an experiment with The&Partnership which has seen a team of 30 creatives from the WPP agency move into its European headquarters. It's resulting in "bolder work" says the marketer charged with leading it, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

At the end of 2016, Lexus-owner Toyota dropped Publicis Group’s Saatchi & Saatchi and Zenith from its pan-European creative business in favour of WPP’s The&Partnership – but the £240m account came with strings attached.

It wanted to create a new agency, dubbed &Toyota, into the Toyota/Lexus headquarters in Burgh Heath, Surrey, an hour’s drive from London which would see creative, media, digital, content and data analytics consolidated into this new hybrid client-agency model.

Two years down the line, brand communications manager of Lexus, Emma Lane, has spoken on the challenge of embedding 30 adland creatives into the alien setting of a traditional, Japanese automaker.

Speaking at Advertising Week Europe, she joked: “We were bringing a whole new agency into the building raised a lot of questions, the biggest was ‘what will these people be wearing?’ The creative types in shorts and flipflops seemed to be an overriding concern.”

But there were other, more pressing, frictions as she worked to a strict 100 day deadline of establishing the new set-up. Lane was still delivering campaigns with Publicis while planning future work with new WPP allies as she simultaneously tried to recruit and settle 30 WPP creatives within its walls.

“We were thrown together,” she admitted. “I was seconded over to implement the new agency, everything from delivering car park passes, the seating and sorting contracts, and I had to internally champion them.”

But there have been immediate benefits with the integration. “It has made [the creatives] much bolder in their ideas, and push the boundaries, in the old model, you would be lucky to see the creatives. They now challenge us and push us in terms of the boundaries,” she said.

To sweeten the deal, the team – which may spend a day or two a week liasing in London and the rest at the HQ – has access to subsidised company cars, the on-site gym and more. Finding benefits creatives might not necessarily be given within an traditional ad agency have helped keep staff turnover, “very low”, she said.

Challenges around ‘culture’ are what many brands experimenting with an in-house or hybrid model often encounter. But Lane said having a “dual culture” can work in its favour.

“We are a Japanese company with a strong culture so we had to find people who are the right fit and embrace the corporate lifestyle. They may be in London two days a week but they do feel part of our organisation.

“I like that they bring agency culture to a corporate, traditional company, I quite like it, it is why we are doing it. They embrace our culture as much as we do theirs.”

Dan Whitmarsh, global chief strategy officer, m/SIX – the media division of The&Partnership – explained that the approach has broken down siloes, and have opened fruitful discussions between the department and the media buyer responsible with executing the ideas.

“Rather than a creative start coming first and being set in stone before we question how it comes alive for audiences, we need to put everyone together so that their point of view is equal. We don’t want to be ‘we are an ad agency, so the answer is and advert’, we want everyone to be agenda-less.

“50% of the benefit of embedding is the continual conversations we have.”

He foresees creative platforms living longer. Instead of shooting TV ads, there will be a shift to “we shot 48 hours of footage, informed by consumer insight, two years ago and we are still using it… as part of a newsroom mentality.”

Lexus late in November used an AI to script an ad, it was claiming the word’s first. The work told the story of a self-aware car involved in a televised crash test. This was a taster of how it would lean on data and tech to cut new creative.