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ATTIK Floors It
Scion Goes From Zero to 60 in Ten Years

by Sam McMillan

Owen Peacock, the national brand manager for Scion, calls the little car people love to hate, “the innovation lab for Toyota.” In 2003 Toyota went looking for the most innovative agency they could find to help them launch the Scion xB, a car meant to attract a new, younger audience to the Toyota family. Toyota wanted an agency that was edgy, intense, passionate about design and unafraid to take risks. Most of all they wanted an agency that knew how to reach young people with a street-smart message that didn’t look and sound like messaging. They found ATTIK.

ATTIK knows street smarts. The agency got its start in 1986 just 200 miles north of London on the mean streets of Huddelsfield. The sidewalks, actually. In 1986 Simon Needham and James Sommerville were unemployed art students. Having attended and dropped out of Batley Art College, the duo took to chalk drawing Disney cartoon characters on the sidewalks for anything passersby would throw them. “If we made $200 in a day, we thought we were lucky,” ATTIK’s co-founder and creative director Needham remembers.

Renowned production company Imaginary Forces worked closely with ATTIK’s Simon Needham on these 2009 “Samples xB” spots. Needham says, “These ads energetically combined actual owners’ xBs, xDs and tCs with stock models in ways that conveyed the distinct personalities of Scion’s vehicles and their owners—while also showing how their individuality tied them together.”

Sleeping on couches, bounc­ing around the city’s music scene, the two heard about a grant from the Prince’s Trust to kickstart small business endeavors. In moribund Thatcherite England, this sounded like “free money,” Needham explains. Starting a business was an afterthought. None­theless the two were awarded £2,000, bought a Macintosh Plus and a Reprographic machine, lugged them up to Sommerville’s grandmother’s attic, and ATTIK was born. Armed with ambition, energy, talent and a desire to do good work and get paid for it, a year later ATTIK had nineteen employees. And James and Simon had yet to celebrate their twentieth birthdays.

As the company grew it quickly developed a repu­ta­tion for its willingness to push technology, and an eagerness to smash the status quo. Soon ATTIK moved to London, where its streetwise, brash, cutting-edge design attracted clients like Levi’s, MTV and Nike—the trifecta of youth culture in America. Which meant ATTIK found itself on the short list of agencies invited to pitch Scion.

ATTIK won the Scion account based on its ability to connect with young people, and the strength of its ongoing experimen­tal print project called Noise. Rolled out on an irregular schedule beginning in 1995, Noise is a self-published, four-hun­dred-plus-page, coffee-table book. Using different paper stocks, finishes and printing techniques, Noise is an explosion of energy captured between two covers. Each edition of Noise pushes the boundaries of what can be printed. Not coincidentally, Noise tends to attract clients who also want to push boundaries. Noise is not your typical pitch book. And yet that’s what the execs at Toyota responded to when they put the Scion account up for bid.

“The books display an inherent sense of the company,” Needham explains. “We live and breathe design. ATTIK has always been interested in trendy, edgy design. We had always targeted industries that target young audi­ences. We had a pretty good portfolio; and Toyota wanted to do something different. It was clear we had the credentials to communicate to young audiences in a way that’s relevant.”

Once ATTIK won the Scion account, it became obvious to the London-based agency that someone would need to manage the account from California, Toyota’s US headquarters. “I’ll come over and have a look,” Needham volunteered.

The national launch for Scion occurred in 2003 and by 2006, the brand was already well known for its stylish graphics and VFX-intensive spots. “Bulldog” for the xB was produced by ATTIK by US creative production company Shilo—the first of many collaborations between the two shops for Scion.

When he initially saw the xB Needham’s first thought was, “You’re kidding me, right? How are we going to make that cool?” The cars are nothing if not polarizing. “It’s not all things to all people,” Needham says. In other words, you either think Scion is a really cool little car, or you side with ad critic Bob Garfield writing in Advertising Age, who called it, “a design abomination.”

ATTIK’s essential insight was to embrace the ugliness of the car—its difference and distinction—with an attitude that celebrates what the French call “Une jolie-laide,” which translates as “ugly beauty.” The phrase describes something whose ugliness defines its mag­netic attraction. Which would explain the “want2Bsquare” cam­paign that celebrates all things square, including the Scion xB. One cartoon video meant to go viral and drive viewers to the want2Bsquare website depicts a stick figure who hacks its own round face with a carving knife until it is square. This is not advertising for the faint of heart. Nor for that matter, for adults.

That campaign, much like the car itself, was a litmus test. “We wanted to make a statement with the want2Bsquare campaign,” Needham recalls. “It carries a bit of ‘fuck you’ as well. There’s no middle ground.” You either loved it or hated it. If you loved it, then Scion—and ATTIK—was talking to you.

At launch, Scion defined their target audience as 18- to 24-year-olds. That’s a market that comes with built in constraints, namely that it’s a group that hates being marketed to. First and foremost, Needham says, “We didn’t want to sound like a bunch of 40-year-olds trying to come off as cool to a 20-year-old. It is cheesy and fake. You can’t dictate to kids what’s cool. You have to present the product in a way that’s interesting and fresh. Then let people make a decision.” McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at