That Dentsu has appointed its first non-Japanese executive officer sends the clearest signal yet that the holding company's latest attempt to crack the global market is going to be different this time.
Tim Andree, the chief executive of Dentsu America, adds the role - which is a step below a seat on the board - to his existing responsibilities on 27 June. The appointment comes a year after the Dentsu president, Tatsuyoshi Takashima, announced to employees his vision to accelerate Dentsu's global and digital operations when he arrived in the top post last summer.
Andree's appointment is recognition for improving the performance of Dentsu's US operations, where billings are projected to increase to $300 million this year, up from $104 million in 2005. He is also credited with spearheading the acquisition of Attik, a brand design agency that started in Huddersfield and now has an office in San Francisco, in October.
Dentsu will be hoping to boost its bottom line, which has been dented by a more cautious market in Japan. In March it reported a 1.7 per cent dip in billings to £10.1 billion in 2007, while operating income fell by 10.7 per cent to £275 million. The long-term goal is to boost profits from its non-Japanese operations from 10 to 30 per cent.
"In Japan, Dentsu has 38 of the Fortune 100 companies as clients, but we have not been able to translate those relationships outside of Japan. That is just an opportunity that has not been realised yet," Andree says. "The question is why that hasn't happened yet, and that is part of my challenge," he adds.
On paper, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone more qualified than Andree to bridge the cultural and client-agency divides. He joined Dentsu in May 2006. A former Chicago Bulls basketball team prospect who played in Europe and then Japan, Andree started his marketing career at Toyota, where he spent 14 years - five in Japan and the rest in the US. He went to another of Dentsu's blue-chip clients, Canon, and later became the senior vice-president of marketing communications at the National Basketball League, and BASF's chief marketing officer. It helps that he speaks Japanese.
His initial brief is to build an agency in the US, based on Dentsu's strengths, that attracts domestic accounts and local talent.
"Part of the fun for me is that I get to build the kind of agency I would have liked as a client," he says.
In the two years since Andree arrived from Toyota, he has renamed DCA Advertising as Dentsu America, moved the agency from its offices on Fifth Avenue to Tribeca, where Bartle Bogle Hegarty is based, and lured the former Ogilvy creative director Mike Wilson as his chief creative officer. As a result, the agency has started winning domestic business such as Express Jet Airways and Harper Collins' online activity, and has pitched for accounts such as Best Buy.
"Two years ago, we never got invited to submit requests for proposals, but now I'm in the fortunate position that, last month, I turned down two opportunities to pitch," Andree says.
Once the agency is complete, including rounding out its offering with acquisitions in areas such as digital promotions and experiential, the model will be exported into other markets.
But there are those who are sceptical about how successful his efforts will be, and question if it's possible for the company to come close to replicating the success it enjoys in its home territory. In Japan, it controls around 30 per cent of the media market and is twice the size of its closest advertising rival, Hakuhodo.
Even the problem of conflict is solved by different Dentsu groups, which are separated to the point that each has its own elevator.
"The question is: what is the strategy they are trying to follow?" one network chief asks. "In Japan, a lot of Western agencies don't bother to compete, because Dentsu has got it sewn up. It's a brilliant machine, but the struggle has always been which part of that you can take and roll out, and which part is distinctly Japanese."
Dentsu is certainly changing tack from previous international forays, which have involved alliances with other networks in an attempt to overcome the cultural and language barriers that have hindered it in the past. In 2002, it famously took a 15 per cent stake in Publicis, becoming the French advertising group's biggest shareholder. But it has been slow to get off the ground, raising the question of whether the deal will continue beyond 2012, when Dentsu can choose to withdraw its investment.
Bertrand Siguier, the Publicis Groupe management board member who is closest to the Dentsu arrangement, points to the switch of a Publicis client, HP, from Hakuhodo to Dentsu in Japan, as one of its successes. The Publicis-Dentsu partnership also set up the sports-marketing specialist iSe, which won the official hospitality contract for the 2006 Fifa World Cup.
Siguier defends the partnership, explaining that the Japanese way of doing business is different from that in other markets. "I think a lot has been achieved, but maybe by European or US standards, it has been a little slow. But has anyone done better? Has anyone been quicker with the Japanese? I think we are doing well.
"We are making efforts to show that it is not a financial deal. We're interested in the commercial aspect, and I think, if we do well, then we will continue to have a fruitful partnership with Dentsu."
Its other tie-ups include Dentsu Y&R and Beacon, with Leo Burnett. One surprising fact is that Dentsu also has 144 offices around the world across Europe and South America. But, outside of Asia -where it has had considerable success in India, rising to become the 12th-biggest agency in five years, and in China, where it employs more than 1,200 staff - Dentsu has struggled to turn them into more than offices serving its Japanese clients.
In the UK, its acquisition of the once-brilliant Collett Dickenson Pearce was a disappointment. Honda, the client it shared with Dentsu, bolted, and the agency was merged with another UK acquisition, Travissully, to form cdp-travissully.
One former senior Dentsu executive explains: "The Dentsu model was to buy or set up agencies with a strong creative pedigree, and support them and hope that they would flourish, but it hasn't worked. In Europe, they need to control their operations centrally."
So can it succeed where it has previously failed?
Richard Pinder, the chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide, says: "Everyone has reasons to fear or respect these guys, because they have got a serious business. Once they have worked out what, out of all the things they do so well in Japan, is internationally applicable, I'm sure they will be enormously successful."
Peter Travis, the former chief executive of cdp-travissully, is equally optimistic: "The European market has proved difficult for Dentsu, but it always plays the long game. It is determined to succeed, and eventually we will see a strong Dentsu presence across Europe."
Andree has a challenge ahead of him, but what's clear is that Dentsu is serious about taking its place on the global stage. Is he the key to its success this time? We'll have to wait and see.