Japan: Creative Conflict

Could the prospect of brighter times ahead stir things up for Japan's creatives, Lucy Aitken asks.

There are a number of telltale signs that, at long last, Japan is finding its feet again. Property prices are increasing, a rise in interest rates is on the cards and GDP grew at 5.5 per cent in the last quarter of 2005.

The Economist noted in February: "It looks like the (Japanese) economy may finally be leaving ten years of stagnation behind."

But is the country's advertising reflecting this long-awaited buoyancy?

And could the sense that brighter times lie ahead evoke a sense of conflict in agency creative departments - an urge to break away from the established way of doing things?

There is certainly more money available to Japan's advertising agencies these days. According to Initiative, adspend increased by 1 per cent last year. This brings the value of the world's second-largest ad market to a total of $37.5 billion - more than double that of the UK's ($18 billion).

Phil Rubel, the managing director of Fallon Tokyo, thinks this growth is lifting the mood of the advertising community. "Japanese business is much more optimistic than in the past, and advertising is generally reflecting the positive mood," he says.

There's a lot of talk about the new-found "feel-good" nature of Japanese ads. Mark Blair, the president of Ogilvy Japan Group, refers to an emerging "human" style. "We're seeing more evidence of Western humour with which Japanese consumers can identify," he says. "The characters are real, as opposed to the over-acted, almost slapstick comedy which has historically characterised a large part of creative output in Japan."

Over the past 15 years, Japanese ads have been busy machine-gunning messages to audiences in 15-second bursts on TV. According to Blair: "A typical Japanese ad will have a celebrity saying: 'Hi, I'm doing an ad for so-and-so brand. Get so-and-so brand,' without any tongue in cheek."

Mammoth marketing budgets were part and parcel of the bubble economy that drove Japan's meteoric rise throughout the 80s. They certainly helped Japanese advertising to set global standards; the country used to regularly claim the top prizes at international awards shows.

But budgets burst along with the bubble in 1989. Former big spenders such as Matsushita and Suntory suddenly needed ads that shifted products. Consequently, advertising became much more perfunctory.

Minoru Fujii, the executive creative director of Hakuhodo, reflects: "Previously, the main function of Japanese advertising was to inform consumers of new low-cost products that had just hit the market."

Now that the economy has turned a corner, though, there is change on the horizon. This is partly characterised by a desire to look beyond the 15-second TV spot. Around 80 per cent of TV spots in Japan fit that time-frame, but there are some important exceptions.

"Husky girls", Dentsu's 90-second opus for Ajinomoto Stadium in the suburbs of Tokyo, is a case in point.

The ad - which took the Grand Prix for film at 2005's AdFest - was a winning entry in an internal competition at Dentsu to find ideas that would challenge clients' notions of advertising. The ad follows a young man who is enraptured by the beautiful girls surrounding him ... until they open their mouths and start talking. Their voices are husky from all the shouting they have been doing at the stadium's football matches. Not only does the commercial show the warmer, gently humorous style of modern Japanese advertising, it also tells a story that lasts six times the length of the average ad. The husky girls also rasped their way into 21st position in the most-awarded TV ads table in the latest edition of The Gunn Report.

Compared with Nissin Food Products' "no border" campaign for its Cup Noodle brand, however, "husky girls" seems like a tame experiment. Nissin invited the space tourist Gregory Olsen to film an ad on his mission.

The ad was broadcast in Japan in November and attracted masses of press coverage. A Dentsu client, Nissin Cup Noodle had already courted controversy with the "no border" campaign by showing the ravages of war in impoverished villages. Hoon Kim, the managing director of BBH Japan, remarks: "It's quite a big idea for an instant noodle brand."

The high-definition camera was provided by the Japanese space agency, Jaxa,which agreed to leave it at the International Space Station for future cosmonaut commercial stars.

This could mean that the celebrities that are the hallmark of contemporary Japanese advertising might look a bit different in the years to come.

For the time being, there is a sense of fatigue around the relentless use of famous people in Japanese ads, with the same faces often spread thinly across a number of brands.

Last December, The Nikkei Marketing Journal canvassed advertising executives in 500 Japanese companies to find out who were the most popular celebrities.

Top of the pops was Masami Nagasawa, a young, up-and-coming actress whose pure image gives her an innocent appeal. The boy band Smap continues to be in demand, while the actress Rie Miyazawa also features on the list.

Blair says of Miyazawa: "She's been in every commercial for years and she's still very popular." He describes her as "famous for being famous" - Japan's very own Paris Hilton.

It's almost a reflex instinct to use celebrities in ads; it's regarded as the "safe" option. Masayoshi Soeda, the chief creative officer at Grey Global Group Japan, estimates that a whopping 90 per cent of Japanese ads take this route. He comments: "Clients love celebrities; it's almost a race to get an up-and-coming talent first."

But there are pitfalls: "If a celebrity gets involved in a scandal, the negative publicity reflects on the brand." Soeda believes that this is one reason athletes are beginning to usurp actors. The New York Yankees baseball player Hideki Matsui is a popular choice, along with Ai Miyasato, a 20-year-old female golfer, and the 16-year-old professional figure skater Miki Ando. Celebrities of this ilk are considered to be healthier role models - particularly for youth brands - because they represent clean living, aspiration, tenacity and achievement. Soeda comments: "Big Japanese global players such as Honda and Canon want to spread their wings globally. It's even better if they can do that on the coat-tails of popular athletes succeeding overseas."

Ask Japanese creatives which ads might achieve success overseas and the general consensus is Fanta. Hakuhodo's work for the Coca-Cola brand won the Grand Prix at the All Japan Radio and Television Commercial Confederation (ACC) Awards in 2005, and is hotly tipped to be a contender on the international stage.

Targeting high-school students, three 15-second TV ads tap into far-fetched fantasies: remote-control teachers, photographing stars and school being invaded by a herd of goats. The jaunty soundtrack ends with: "How I wish it were true/but it won't happen, so I drink Fanta."

Yet Sumiko Sato and Hiroshi Yonemura, the creative directors at Wieden & Kennedy Japan, defy popular opinion and are doubtful whether the innocent charm of the Fanta ads will translate into international awards. "Fanta is very popular," they concede, "but it may be tough for it to win anything overseas."

One ad campaign that might impress international judging panels is Grey's recent work for Bold. The ad uses humour to show off Bold's whiter-than-white results. One spot, "yukiyama" ("snow mountain"), shows a macho man walking into a drying bedsheet that is camouflaged against a snowy mountain.

The ad won a silver at the ACC awards.

Soeda says: "The detergent category used to be pretty static, with the dutiful housewife expressing her love for the family by the clean clothes she provided. But Bold work features men in typically male situations. It has captured a transition in society, helping to usher in an era with changing values."

The Bold campaign also makes an impression because it has a strong strategy that gifts it both longevity and instant recognition.

However, campaigns such as this are the exception rather than the rule in Japan. According to Blair, there is a real dearth of commercials that are firmly rooted in strategy, and this can result in a blurring between brands. He comments: "The convention is not to use real insight."

Yet a few agencies are starting to challenge traditional ways of doing things with some thoughtful and ground-breaking work. The hotshop Tugboat launched in 1999 as an alternative to behemoths such as Dentsu and Hakuhodo which, between them, account for around 40 per cent of Japanese advertising. Today, 13 people work at Tugboat, and its clients include Fuji Xerox, Japan Railways and Maglite/Mitsui&Co.

The agency also collaborates with agencies globally to bolster creative output. Yasumichi Oka, formerly a Dentsu creative and now the creative director, president and co-founder at Tugboat, believes that his is one of the few shops to challenge clients' thinking.

Recently, Tugboat ran a series of ads in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper inviting readers to visit a website that existed for only one month. Kazuhiro Obata, the executive creative director at Beacon, whose best work includes campaigns for the consumer finance brand Aiful, is one admirer. "This was a completely new way of using the newspaper medium, and it generated a great deal of attention," he says.

Only a handful of boutique advertising agencies exist in Japan. Home-grown boutiques include Shingata, Kaze to Rock (Wind and Rock) and Samurai.

More familiar brands from the advertising world that have opened up offices in the past few years include Bartle Bogle Hegarty (with Levi's as its founding client) Wieden & Kennedy with Nike, and Fallon.

Yet Blair is sceptical about the impact the new arrivals have had - particularly the domestic ones. "They have talented people, but I haven't seen anything particularly interesting or novel coming out of them," he says. "It's not as if there's a Crispin Porter & Bogusky springing up."

In fact, it is the larger agencies that are experimenting - particularly in terms of innovative media ideas. Ogilvy used the inside panel of office window-cleaners' cradles to target a business audience for Northwest Airlines, while ambient work by Hakuhodo conveyed the warmth of Knorr Cup a Soup by writing the brand name in simulated steam on the windows of commuter trains.

But, as befits Japan's techno-literate population, interactive agencies are starting to punch above their weight. Yugo Nakamura is one particularly eminent interactive creative, while the boutique new-media shop Bascule has a strong reputation and has picked up awards for the likes of Nike and Nissin Foods.

Along with South Korea, Japan is leading the way in terms of mobile internet use, and brands are already figuring out how to use the very small screen as an advertising medium. Yet despite the enthusiasm for this new digital era, traditional media still reign supreme - around 80 per cent of Japanese people read a newspaper every day.

The creative trends in the future will demand an ability to develop strong creative ideas that can move between media as effortlessly as a bullet train glides between cities.

Soeda speculates: "A new creative media will emerge. Media people have to think more creatively, and creative people have to be more media-savvy. People who can't understand this new reality are going to be left behind."

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