Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Bridge Must be Built

I ran into an old Team One colleague last week.

Naturally we reminisced about our time working on the Lexus account. And no story about working on Lexus in the mid-90's would be complete without many colorful tales of Mr. Chikuma, the former CMO.

If you read yesterday's post, you know I made a point about never naming names. I'm violating my own rules here. However, Mr. Chikuma is no longer with us, so I run little risk of igniting his often volatile temper. How volatile?

Every year Lexus holds a formal banquet for the dealers. On one particular year and prior to the dealer's arrival, Chikuma made a careful examination of the hors d'ouevres platters. While 9 of the 10 platters had the requisite 33 jumbo shrimp, one platter only had 32. The negligent caterer was summoned and then given what could only be described as the verbal equivalent of the Bataan Death March.

Of course, now with the benefit of time, my recollections of this man, who could speak less than 500 words of English and was in charge of all of Lexus' North American marketing efforts, are more likely to produce laughter than anything else.

Take the picture above for example. At Christmas time, Lexus made a habit of sending out cards to its vendors and associates. One yuletide season we received a card featuring the image of Mr. Chikuma in full cowboy gear, with chaps, and a horse, standing in silhouette on a hill. (Oh, how I wish I had saved that card.)

And while he fancied himself as some reincarnation of John Wayne, we, the Creatives at Team One Advertising, saw him as a different cinematic figure.

Those of you familiar with the classic Bridge of the River Kwai, will no doubt recognize the forceful Colonel Saito, who would counter the petulance of his British prisoner with five simple words, "The Bridge Must be Built."

And so it was in El Segundo, when week after week, month after month, Mr. Chikuma would review concept after concept. He would never critique the work. Or comment on it. Or offer any guidance as to what he was looking for. His feedback was sparse. It was often grunted, not spoken. But it was always to the point, "No good."

We'd stack the rejected storyboards until they reached the ceiling. But like Alec Guinness and his faithful brigades, we soldiered on. Because the bridge had to be built. And we were the ones to build it.

In 1995, one resilient team actually sold him an idea.

He signed the estimate, they shot the commercial, and brought the rough cut back for his approval. He gave the film his undivided attention. His minions replayed the spot for his further inspection. He removed his glasses and the room went silent. He pronounced the spot was, "No good."

And then he did what he had never done before, he explained why.

While the spot told a clear story. And provided an excellent look at the vehicle, inside and out. And the cinematography and composed music were nothing but first class. There was a fundamental, and fatal, flaw in the driving and the course the car had taken. Which none of us had seen.

Fortunately, our ersatz Colonel Saito was there to clarify the matter, "Left turn, unprofessional."

To which, there can only be one response:


Bob said...

Back in the late '80s, I had a Japanese client on a certain color copier account. We did some print ads that focused on how simple they were to use. He killed them all for one reason or another, but bought an execution that featured a chameleon. Because their color adapts to every situation, right? (I never said it was a good ad.) Anyway, in his limited English, he said, "Do that one. But chameleon sign of infidelity. Use lion." And walked out of the room.

Steve Silver said...

I remember the gentleman well. He had a sidekick who came with him and helped with the English but of course, the sidekick's English wasn't so good either. English as a Second Language? Try fifth.

One time I went with Scott to Lexus headquarters. I forget where Tom Cordner was. I remember the big long table. Several clients, and Chikuma and the Sidekick. I don't think we were presenting work. I think we were there to hear from the man himself what he expected. Chikuma said something. He said it to me but of course he didn't look at me. He never did. The Sidekick translated or amplified or clarified or whatever. The problem is, I couldn't understand what he was saying. So I asked him to repeat himself. He did. Still no go. I tried saying what I thought he had said. Nope. Again the Sidekick said something. I stared at them. The sidekick stared at me, Chikuma stared at the ceiling titles until finally Scott turned to me and with a completely straight face said, "Chikuma wants the car to come out of a spaceship. Does that help clarify things, Steve?"

The Sidekick smiled. I believe he explained that they didn't mean a spaceship literally, but to think outside the box, although I am sure he didn't use that actual expression.

I met and worked with many excellent Lexus and Toyota clients. Chikuma was not among them.

glasgowdick said...

@Bob, Steve. i love both of those stories.