Dentsu’s boss of bosses

No global ad empire rivals the world’s biggest agency, Japan’s Dentsu. Stefano Hatfield talks to its boss, Yutaka Narita

No global ad empire rivals the world’s biggest agency, Japan’s Dentsu.

Stefano Hatfield talks to its boss, Yutaka Narita

The Dorchester on a mild autumn morning. The suite is full of Japanese

agency managers, but it is immediately clear who’s the boss. The man

holding out his meiji (business card) to me is not just any old big

cheese. The card reads ‘Yutaka Narita, president’. In the rigidly

hierarchical structure of the largest Japanese advertising agency,

Dentsu, Narita-san is the boss of bosses.

There is no fast track to this position. A glance at Narita’s CV proves

this is not the career path of your average leading Western adman.

Narita joined Dentsu in 1953 and has been there ever since. It is the

only company for which he will work.

It was not until 1977 that he had his first experience in ‘account

service’; not until the age of 54 that he was appointed managing

director. His ‘promotion’ in 1991 from senior managing director to

director of account service administration says much about the latter


Since 1993 he has been president, succeeding Gohei Kogure. Three years

ago Kogure cancelled an interview with Campaign in Tokyo to attend an

urgent client meeting. There he was told Dentsu was to lose its dollars

76 million share of the Nissan account to Hakuhodo, the first

significant client move in Japanese agency history. The recession was

beginning to bite. Things would be different.

But not that different. Dentsu has just reversed a three-year downward

trend in revenues and a four-year slip in profits by announcing income

of dollars 2 billion and a net profit of dollars 71.5 million on total

billings of dollars 13.7 billion. It has a roughly one quarter share of

the Japanese market, a figure unimaginable here.

After our interview, Narita attended the European Management Seminar

presented in association with the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies.

That evening Dentsu threw a lavish party at the Imagination building.

Guests of honour included Baroness Thatcher and Gary Lineker. Their

presence at the party is explained in part by Dentsu’s determination to

help secure Japan the 2002 World Cup.

There are not enough pies in the world for all of Dentsu’s fingers.

Highlights of last year alone include sponsorship and other services

around World Cup USA and the 12th Asian Games, an enormous campaign

behind the opening of Kansai International airport, and the 1,200th

anniversary celebrations of Kyoto being named Japan’s national capital.

Clearly, Dentsu must look at the British advertising industry’s leap on

to a bandwagon called ‘integration’ with bemusement. Dentsu has always

been integrated; in 1986 it went so far as to formalise a commitment to

‘total communication service’. One third of Dentsu’s income is from non-

traditional media.

In truth, Dentsu can be as integrated or otherwise as a client wants.

The one thing that a client is guaranteed above all, however, is the

protection of confidentiality. In Tokyo alone there are 18 sales and

marketing divisions. Each stands alone as an individual company in its

own building.

Narita explains: ‘The mobility rate of Dentsu employees is very low. In

the West, employees move from company to company. It is partly down to

the cultural context. Also, in global terms, the Japanese advertising

market alone is relatively small. Therefore the highest- quality human

resources tend to be found in a very few high-quality companies. As long

as we stick to our golden rule [protecting confidentiality] clients will

choose us.’

Dentsu goes a lot further than its Western counterparts in what it

regards as the boundaries of client service. Hence Thatcher and Lineker,

and Dentsu’s unique position via its ISL sports marketing subsidiary.

Dentsu believes it is incumbent upon itself to help Japan win the World

Cup, not least so that its clients, through ISL, can enjoy the event’s

sponsorship opportunities.

Watch out too for future partnerships with both hardware and software

manufacturers in developing technologies for the digital era. Narita

believes that Japan, despite its domination in hardware technologies, is

behind the US in software.

Pressed on his views on CDP Europe, its comparative lack of a proper

network, and his future plans for CDP and Europe, Narita stresses that

he believes CDP UK, under the ‘new’ leadership of Ben Langdon, is

performing well. But by implication, Narita damns CDP Europe, which

currently lacks agencies in the crucial German, French and Italian


‘A container or hardware without contents or software is not going to be

of significance,’ he says. ‘We are currently considering the future of

the network. It depends on client needs as well as the human resources

required. Even if we acquired a network it will not be meaningful if

that acquired entity is not able to provide high-quality service.’

Dentsu may believe there is no group worth buying in Europe, having got

its fingers burnt with both Young and Rubicam (via the HDM venture) and

CDP. However, there is a lingering suspicion, which Narita does little

to dispel, that having a network at all is a defensive measure. Is it

there primarily to stop yet more Japanese clients using Western

agencies, and giving Dentsu’s rivals a potential foothold in the

Japanese market?

Dentsu seems surprisingly worried about the possibility. But while

Dentsu will never succeed internationally until Japanese clients start

awarding more business to Japanese agencies globally, its Western rivals

will not succeed in Japan if they do not understand the fundamental

ethical differences.

Asked about the Maurice Saatchi affair, for example, Narita says much by

what he doesn’t say: ‘Saatchi is a great leader. But one genius will not

suffice. Advertising requires the wisdom of a team of people of

different backgrounds and ideas. The concentration of wisdom in the team

is the reason we have been so successful.’

Could that integrated team system be imported here?

‘If the Japanese client of CDP requires ‘total communication service’

then the British employee will be most happy to provide that service.

Advertising is in transition. CDP can clearly provide the marketing mix

now required.’

Langdon, while lamenting the lack of genuine leverage with Japanese

clients the Dentsu relationship brings, says: ‘Dentsu does integrated

communications better than anyone else; it provides a genuine commitment

to the highest levels of client service - not just a sop; and for a

local manager, I am far better able to plan long term than with American

bosses. Dentsu had a vision, so we’ve had time to turn the business


Peter Travis, the managing director of Dentsu’s other London agency,

Travis Sennett Sully Ross, adds: ‘Dentsu has brought a method of account

handling that is highly responsive to client needs. It’s about being a

partner. If you’ve worked on business for 30 years, you really

understand it.’

If the British admen sound almost Japanese, then Narita remains

unequivocally different from the heads of Western agencies. In an open

and frank interview, he was puzzled by only one question: ‘What are your

personal ambitions?’ He consulted the translator before making the most

telling of all his replies: ‘I want to foster Dentsu to become an agency

that is trusted by clients all around the world and make it an

organisation where our employees can have fun and be optimistic.’

He meant it too.

The Narita file

1929 Born in Tokyo

1953 Graduated from Tokyo University, Faculty of Law.

Entered Dentsu Inc - regional newspaper and magazine division

1964 Manager of regional newspaper and magazine division

1971 Director of newspaper and magazine division

1977 Account service. First experience of working on international

accounts, notably Nestle

1981 Appointed as executive director of Dentsu Inc based in account

service administration

1983 Appointed managing director

1989 Appointed senior managing director

1991 Director of account service administration

1993 Appointed president of Dentsu Inc

Narita’s CV is anathema to most people in the West. Dentsu, his employer

for 42 years, is the only company for which he will ever work. Note his

’91 promotion.


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