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