CAMPAIGN INTERNATIONAL: ISSUE ADVERTISING IN JAPAN - Japanese agencies rethink strategy/A recession and satellite TV have forced the Japanese ad industry to readjust, Karen Yates explains

When Dentsu climbed into bed with Leo Burnett last year, it was billed as the most spectacular marriage since that of Victoria Adams and David Beckham.

When Dentsu climbed into bed with Leo Burnett last year, it was

billed as the most spectacular marriage since that of Victoria Adams and

David Beckham.

And this merger isn’t the only sign that Japan is finally yielding to

the overtures of the West. Take Wieden & Kennedy, for example. After

years of languishing as a joint venture, the agency has gone it alone.

It now sports its first local client, an honour virtually unheard of for

a Gaijin agency.

Ogilvy & Mather has also begun surging ahead since opening a standalone

bureau in Japan. Even Bartle Bogle Hegarty opened an office in Tokyo

last year.

So why is it that when the Japanese have successfully fended off Western

economic marauders for the past 50 years, they are now allowing us


One simple answer is, of course, the recession. The worst slump since

World War Two has convinced the Japanese that they can no longer rely on

home markets for success. And there is another reason: the Japanese are

being threatened by a second, much more insidious invasion - the influx

of satellite TV.

To understand why this is set to change the face of Japanese

advertising, we must examine how the industry in Japan operates. The

basic premise is that advertisers choose their agencies based on the

media they have access to, not their creative ability. Between them,

Hakuhodo and Dentsu, for example, control 60 per cent of prime-time

television through a mixture of ownership, sponsorship and long-term

deals. To get a slice of so-called ’golden hours’, you have to use one

of these two agencies.

Japanese advertising agencies regard themselves primarily as wholesale

media selling houses. Media makes them more money than fiddling around

with creative, which is often thrown in to seal the deal. It also gives

them tremendous clout. It’s not by accident that Dentsu, Japan’s largest

agency, calls its account managers ’sales reps’.

Agencies and media owners found that it was more profitable to sell two

15-second spots of TV airtime than one 30-second slot. As Taku Tada of

Tugboat puts it: ’You can make more money selling two halves of a

cabbage than one whole one.’ Because of this, agencies have persuaded

clients that it is better to ’drench’ the public with a vast number of

tiny ads - almost regardless of content - than offer a smaller number of

carefully crafted 30-second spots.

Takumi Marumo, an information manager at Dentsu, explains: ’Around 25

years ago, commercials were 60 seconds, and then 30 seconds, but since

the beginning of the 90s they have mainly been ten seconds. We found it

more effective for the Japanese to see a small commercial many


Since effectiveness is measured in Japan by multiplying average

viewership per commercial with its frequency, the duration of an ad

doesn’t matter.

It seems ’cheaper’ for a campaign to use small slots, despite its toll

on the quality of the ads. With only 15 seconds to play with, it has

also become commonplace to shove a celebrity into a commercial, get him

to do something silly and call it a day. Almost all ads on TV are 15

seconders and of these, 50 per cent or more are ’tarento’ (talent) spots

which feature anyone from soap stars to Sumo wrestlers who advertise a

whisky brand one moment and a mobile phone the next.

Time constraints have also taken the Japanese art of the ’unsaid’ to new

lengths, with commercials often showing little more than the product,

followed by a cute sign-off character. This has led to a 15-second

mindset that is sometimes difficult to climb out of. Some have managed

it, however, notably Dentsu’s ’the birdman’ spot for Wowow, a commercial

satellite station, and a new O&M campaign for Dove. Although this

appears as a fairly standard testimonial commercial, it broke new ground

on several fronts.

It used a ’real’, slightly overweight person, rather than a model, and

it was shot in black and white.

But now the cosy-cute world of the 15-second ad is set to change. Years

behind the rest of the developed world, Japan is being introduced to

satellite TV. And for the first time, Japanese agencies are having to

square up to the challenge of media fragmentation.

Faced, over the next few years, with unprecedented numbers of specialist

channels, each competing for consumer time, they have come to realise

that drenching the public with tiny ads will no longer work. Buying 30

seconds of tightly targeted air time which uses a good idea to achieve

standout is set to threaten the norm.

However, a generation of admen has grown up with commercials too short

for the complex blend of branding/corporate/product messages we aim for

in the West. Even worse, because clients have changed agencies every one

or two campaigns, brands rarely have the carefully thought-out strategy

common elsewhere in the world.

As Tim Solomon, the managing director of Ogilvy & Mather Tokyo, says:

’Creative here is judged on whether it is fun or amusing. Not ’is it on

strategy ... is it on brief?’’

So, just as multinational networks are attracted to Tokyo because of the

recession-ravaged prices of deals, the Japanese have become interested

in what the West has to offer. The internet has also instigated a change

in mindset. It took hold in Japan much later than in America and much of

Europe, but the ease with which it transmits information has brought

home the reality that Japan cannot remain an advertising island for


In short, Japan is a nation once proud of its aloofness that has

conceded defeat. If that seems melodramatic, consider the recent meeting

a Campaign journalist had with a senior creative at Hakuhodo.

Surrounded by phalanxes of secretaries, staff and translators, the lead

creative in Japan’s second-largest agency, ranked 13th in the world,

admitted: ’I never thought in my life that I would have to create a

campaign that was seen outside the country. I never thought I would ever

have to have an interview in English.’