Mugging up on Kotaro Sugiyama’s achievements could induce a severe inferiority complex in the reader. Twice a Cannes juror and one of Japan’s few true international creatives, Sugiyama is a crusader - a man who has devoted the past 22 years to taking Japanese advertising out of a rut.

Mugging up on Kotaro Sugiyama’s achievements could induce a severe

inferiority complex in the reader. Twice a Cannes juror and one of

Japan’s few true international creatives, Sugiyama is a crusader - a man

who has devoted the past 22 years to taking Japanese advertising out of

a rut.

He is also an author, a film critic, a new-media guru, a father of

two ... and in his spare time he translates children’s books from

English into Japanese.

So it was reasonable to expect something a little different from this

zealot. A loud shirt, perhaps. A pony tail.

Or even just one tiny, discreet earring. But no. Breaking the mould in

the ancient civilisations, it appears, is done by degrees rather than by

revolution, and the Dentsu creative director sitting across the table

could have passed for an industrialist on this side of the globe. His

tie is just a little too brightly coloured, perhaps, and his body sits

too easily in the fashionably floppy jacket. But he is a picture of

sobriety nonetheless.

Sugiyama is exquisitely polite, and assumes no knowledge of his home

country - the second largest ad spender in the world - or his agency,

the world’s biggest, although as a creative director of Dentsu’s

Division 1 he has inordinate influence over both. Instead, he patiently

lays bare his mission in life: to rid Japanese advertising of its

reputation for short, simplistic, often meaninglessly star-studded


He explains Japan’s oft-derided obsession with celebrity ads - dubbed

’tarento’ by scornful outsiders - as a deep-down need by consumers for

the familiar.

’The UK and Japan are similar in that they are both island


The difference is that in Britain, on clear days, you can see the

mainland only a few miles off. We can’t. Japanese people both fear and

admire foreign brands. But they do feel safe seeing someone they know

communicating the message, ’ Sugiyama says.

Having said that, the unlikely-looking rebel delights in offering those

same consumers things they have never encountered before. Indeed he shot

to fame in Japan with a campaign for a children’s magazine that dared to

show kids talking in a regional dialect. He has subsequently raised

eyebrows with a Toyota commercial that exhorted owners to leave the car

at home. And this year he offered viewers the vivid picture of a

transparent body gradually filling up with violently-coloured effluvia

from an increasingly polluted world.

He says that one of his aims is to decrease Japan’s dependence on


’We are quite a homogeneous people, so we pay a lot more attention to

language, and not so much to the visual,’ he explains. In other words,

while the rest of the world wants to come up with the visually stunning

’big idea’, Japan is tripping itself up with words. However, even the

phlegmatic Sugiyama admits that things are changing.

The cause, he says, was helped by the success of Nike’s ’good vs evil’

campaign in Japan. This - horror of horrors - was an imported commercial

completely free of any voiceover, and it went down very well indeed. It

changed people’s way of thinking,’ he says. ’It gave them a shock when

they discovered that even without narration ads can work.’

Since then, he admits it has been much easier to convince clients to cut

down on linguistics, and opt for strong visuals and humour instead.

’Tarento’ is still out there in force, he says, but the celebrities are

being used in much more subtle ways. His Japanese counterparts are still

drawn to the big-budget commercial, shot at exotic locations, but these

have been in decline since the recession, and the cheaper ’slice of

life’ ads more common in the rest of the world are gaining more


Another trend that the Tokyo-born Sugiyama welcomes in Japanese

commercials is what he describes as the ’Kansai influence’. The Kansai

region is about a couple of hours away from Tokyo by bullet train and is

centred around the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto and the bustling

industrial centre of Osaka. The people there, he says, have a unique

blend of self-confidence that stems from their long history, as well as

a kind of chutzpah brought on by brash new wealth. The result is that

they don’t take themselves as seriously as people in Tokyo.

In Kansai, he explains, it is acceptable to be more cynical and


It isn’t frowned upon to speak your mind or to approach a serious

subject with a touch of humour.

’Japanese people are usually very reserved, and this can lead to


For example, big companies have trouble talking about their philosophy

in public,’ he says. ’Kansai people are much better at expressing


That said, Sugiyama believes that the West has much to learn from

Japanese culture, and he is working on an exchange of creative talent

between Dentsu and its UK subsidiary, CDP. It is time to swap

experiences, he says, or else a whole new generation will grow up with

the same old prejudices.


1948     Born in Tokyo

1973     Graduates from Rikkyo University in Tokyo

         Creative at Dentsu for 22 years.

         First big break in advertising comes with his commercial for

         Pika Pika magazine for schoolchildren.

         Creative awards include ADD (All Japan Commercial Conference),

         ADC (Tokyo Art Directors’ Club), TCC (Tokyo Copywriters’ Club),


91-92    Cannes jury member

Nov 97   Senior creative director of Dentsu’s Interactive Solution


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