Japan: Little and Large

Mark Tungate finds out what it's like to work in a Tokyo ad agency - how one shop gets closer to clients and why the views at Dentsu are worth celebrating.

For many Brits, Tokyo is about as different as you can get without actually leaving the planet. So what is it like to work in a Tokyo ad agency? Campaign spoke to the American managing director of the Tokyo outpost of a US agency; and a Japanese creative director at Dentsu.

The Japanese creative director

Masako Okamura, the creative director of Dentsu, reveals that the official start of the business day is 9.30am. "In my case, if I have to attend a managers' meeting, I start at 9.00am. Usually, I begin work at 10.30. My finishing time varies daily. Some days I finish work at 4pm and others at 4am. It's a very flexible work environment."

As befits a giant agency, Dentsu has an impressive headquarters. "The building is 48 floors and clad in glass, with a curved, boomerang-like shape. It was designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. On the top floors are several prestigious restaurants."

Around 6,000 people work in the building, including 800 creative staff.

Okamura says: "The elevators - among the fastest in Japan - are glass, so you get a bird's-eye view of Tokyo. At night, when you look up at the building, you can see the red and blue lights on the glass surface of the elevators going up and down. It creates a mysterious kind of beauty. Inside, the building has a subdued colour scheme, and since everything is designed in a highly organised fashion, when you walk around it gives the illusion of being in the not-too-distant future."

But if the Dentsu building is distinctly different, dress codes follow universal creative guidelines. Okamura adds: "A lot of the creative directors wear suits, which is probably one of the biggest differences from Western agencies. I often wear my Chelsea or Real Madrid replica shirts with jeans and people call me a boy. But when I go to a client presentation, I change into a little Prada dress. Then they say: 'My goodness! She is a girl after all!'"

"Our lavatories deserve a mention. When Madonna toured Japan last year she raved about them. Every one of Dentsu's lavatories is a 'Washlet' (toilets with washing and drying functions built in). For some of the men here, it's where they create some of their best ideas."

With the exception of a small number of executive creative directors, who have larger offices, all creative directors get identical booths. But they come with breathtaking views.

"From my seat you can see Mount Fuji. When I'm sitting in my chair and I can see Mount Fuji silhouetted against the setting sun, it makes me want to open a bottle of Champagne!"

The creative process is usually a team effort. "Some teams can get everything done while telling funny stories the whole time. Similar to soccer, which I love, the only hard and fast rule I have is that one meeting is limited to 90 minutes."

At the end of the working day, Okamura has several ways of de-stressing.

"Quite often, I wind down by doing yoga exercises on the roof balcony at home. It's winter at the moment, so I relax by listening to my current favourite CD, by the UK group Athlete. On the night before a client pitch, I often try to go to sleep in a good mood by watching a video collection of famous soccer goals."

The American in Tokyo

Phil Rubel, the managing director of Fallon Tokyo, says the agency "defies conventional description". It was launched in September 2003 after Fallon Worldwide bought a majority share in a boutique agency owned by Tamio Koshino and Mitsuru Kubota. It had 11 staff and six key clients. Now it has more than 40 staff and a dozen big clients, including Cartier, Mitsubishi, Sony, United Airlines and Volkswagen.

Rubel says: "I'm usually at the office by 8am. The rest of the gang usually rolls in over the next two to three hours. However, in the evening, when I'm totally exhausted and heading home, many others are just hitting their stride and will work to all hours of the morning."

Fallon is located in Omotesando, one of Tokyo's coolest neighbourhoods. Rubel explains: "We're surrounded by luxury brand shops, eccentric boutiques and more trendy restaurants, bars, hair salons and day spas than anywhere I've ever encountered.

"And we're a stone's throw away from Harajuku, the Mecca for street fashion and youth culture. We have two floors of a three-storey building, with a patio for casual meetings, barbecues and parties. The building owner's mother lives upstairs."

Whereas New York agencies are famous for their in-house entertainment facilities, Fallon Tokyo staffers tend to get out and about.

"Groups of two or three or larger gangs can be found in neighbourhood restaurants over lunch, coffee shops in late mornings or afternoons and exploring all manner of bars, restaurants and clubs at night."

What about clients: are they pally, too? "Once we have them over for a barbecue, they feel like we're neighbours. The local president of VW once showed us his preferred way to grill a steak: it was delicious."

So what's the last thing Phil does at the end of the working day? "Have breakfast. Just kidding!"

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