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
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
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 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.
THE SUGIYAMA FILE
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