Japan: Advertising's Eastern Enigma

From zen to zany, Japanese ads are always extreme. Robin Hicks asks two top creatives to explain the cultural zeitgeist.

Japanese advertising has a habit of leaving the uninitiated foreigner in a state of total bewilderment. A bunch of asparagus suspended in midair next to a parking meter, for instance. What? Why? How?

Switch on the TV, and ads lovingly crafted from zen images of peaceful grassy mountainsides are abruptly followed by 15 seconds of headache-inducing madness, in which a celebrity shrieks a brand's name with machine gun-like repetition.

Luckily, two big-hitting Japanese creatives, Yoshihiro Sato, the Dentsu creative director, and Yasumichi Oka, the former Dentsu creative director, who recently left to set up Tugboat, are on hand to explain why Japanese advertising is so, well, different.

Q: What do you think foreigners think of Japanese advertising?

Yoshihiro Sato: That it doesn't make sense. But then it's impossible for foreigners to understand it using imaginations alone. It's only when you have lived in Japan will you have a clue as to what it's all about.

Yasumichi Oka: It's very difficult for foreigners to get under the skin of Japanese advertising. And the 15- second TV spot - the currency of TV advertising in Japan - is probably to blame. It's hard to tell a story in such a short time, and the answer has been to use celebrities to make an impact. And, of course, to a foreigner, a Japanese celebrity is just a stranger grinning next to a strange product.

Q: Japan is only just emerging from ten years of recession. Has creativity been able to recover from the "lost decade"?

Sato: The past ten years has not been time wasted. Yes, ad budgets have tightened, leading outside observers to believe the industry has gone into reverse. But it hasn't. The industry has been forced to look at new ways of doing things, which is a good thing.

Oka: Japan has not recovered from recession yet. Stock prices have not rebounded, and GDP growth has not risen above 0 per cent since the turn of the century. Curiously, though, I think creativity has been sheltered from the economic malaise.

Q: Japan is unique in that a few local giants - primarily Dentsu and Hakuhodo - dominate the agency scene. Not only creative and media, but media ownership, too. That can't be healthy, can it?

Sato: Creative pitches are decided on creativity, not media commission or discounts. It's a mistake to think otherwise. Yes, clients like to pool media buying through larger agencies, but they are free to hand creative duties to smaller shops. Advertisers increasingly want more than just a "creative" solution, with creative and media blending together, so having everything in-house can only be a good thing. This is true integration. It is an effective and healthy business model.Oka: Advertising in Japan is all about media muscle. A handful of local agencies with enormous media capital have forged formidably strong ties with the media vendors. More control over media means more commission for the agencies. For them, at least, it's a virtuous circle. There is no Sapin Law here. So creative pitches, more often than not, boil down to which agency can create a campaign for less. This is a huge disadvantage for a small shop like ours - we have no ties with media owners. We can come up with a great idea to build a brand, but aren't able to offer clients discounts.

Q: Will Japan's smaller agencies ever be able to compete with the bigger guns?

Sato: Not in terms of media-buying clout, no. The big guns have the edge on talent, too. There is a clear gap between big and small agencies in the number (8,000 people work in Dentsu's Tokyo office alone) and range of people with the skillsets for "modern", integrated communications. But Dentsu often partners with specialist planning or creative boutiques. We give them the chance to be recognised.

Oka: There are two local independent creative agencies in Japan: us, and Kaze to Rock. If the number grew to ten, advertisers may start considering alternatives. But, currently, they are facing a depressing lack of choice.

Q: Japanese agencies haven't enjoyed much success abroad. Why do you think that is?

Sato: I've noticed that Japanese delegates at awards shows outside of Japan form little groups and don't mingle with foreigners, which can't help our reputation. Japanese creatives have only made ads for their own market for so long that it has become ever harder for them to apply their skills overseas. And it's hard for non-Japanese to judge creative work that is targeted at a homogenous society such as Japan. Foreign agencies haven't had much success in Japan, either. But this is changing, as are Japanese agencies' fortunes abroad, particularly in China and other Asian markets. They are learning as they go which Japanese methods work, and which don't.

Oka: They aren't adept at brand building or producing creative ideas, certainly not those that cross borders. And unlike multinational agencies, they haven't followed clients overseas. They didn't feel the need to. If they had focused on supporting their clients abroad rather than at home, they could have established unique businesses and given their western rivals a run for their money.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you could offer to anyone who is thinking about launching an agency in Japan?

Sato: I wouldn't recommend it. It's tough for foreign agencies to make their ways of working, culture and style succeed in Japan. Coming to terms with the uniqueness of Japan takes a long time, and you'd have to ask yourself whether or not it's actually worth the time, effort and the money. Oka: Ruthlessly pursue a model built on creativity and great ideas. That's the only way to succeed in Japan. Not until mass media has been replaced as the mainstream means of communication will agencies be able to compete on a level playing field.

At the moment, the industry is far too media-dependent. I just wish there were more start-ups in order to get advertisers thinking about more creative alternatives. Only then will a shift in power begin.

Q: Which advertising markets do Japanese creatives tend to look to for inspiration (if any)?

Sato: None. We look outside of advertising for ideas. Inspiration comes from human behaviour. Watching strangers having a conversation on the train, for instance. But the things that you hear and see don't instantly transform themselves into advertising ideas. First, you have to play with them in your mind.

Oka: I don't think Japanese advertising is inspired by any country but Japan. It's very unique.

Q: What would you say are the predominant creative themes in Japan at the moment?

Sato: Brands that talk to people on their level are cutting through. Lofty messages from above and servile ones from below are not.

Oka: It is, and always has been, "now on sale". The product lifecycle here is very fast.

Q: Are there certain things you shouldn't write ads about in Japan at the moment?

Sato: Talk of dos and don'ts of creative expression is nonsense.

Oka: Death is taboo. But I am trying to challenge this. The country's first baby boomers are starting to retire, and the market will be driven strongly by wealthy silver consumers. There will be strong demand for asset management and health insurance brands. Advertisers have to level with them. Death can no longer be ignored.

Q: Do you think that Japan is overly obsessed with celebrity?

Sato: Sure. It's nothing to be proud of. The reality is that using celebrities is highly effective here.

Oka: Absolutely. The 15-second spot is to blame. With so little time, celebrity + product = sales is the perceived wisdom of advertisers.

Q: Pick out the best, or the most unusual, ads around in Japan.

Sato: First, "becoming a new me" for Shiseido skin products, which is by Light Publicity. This TV spot follows a heartbroken girl washing off her make-up, then applying toner. As she applies it, her expression changes until she begins to smile. It's well directed, and the slogan "This moment. This life. Beautifully" is an elegant way of selling the product.

Also good is Light's ad for Kewpie Mayonnaise. The copy reads: "First it was the car, and then 100 years later, computers turned humans into a sedentary species", ie. vegetables. The idea is that city-dwelling Japanese should think carefully about their health.

Among other ads I like is Sun Ad's one for Suntory's Black Oolong Tea, another one that focuses on health, an important issue in ageing Japan. Hakuhodo's "everybody's Golf5" for Sony and a recent spot for Fanta also make my list.

Oka: Apple campaigns (iconic in Japan) aside, I've picked stuff that is very Japanese. I love Dentsu's TV ads for Recruit, a publisher of self-help magazines, which are very touching, and a wonderfully weird spot for Suntory's bottled green tea by Hakuhodo, which stars a plastic bottle in a period drama. Another Suntory spot for the drink Dakara, which stars a ballet-dancing piglet, is a charming example of how Japanese advertisers use characters to bring brands to life. All of these trigger an emotion and linger long after they have ended.

Lastly, it's not an ad campaign, but the rebranding of Toraya is worthy of mention. It's a good old Japanese confectionary store that has cleverly evolved to appeal to modern tastes.

Q: Japan is possibly the world's "coolest" country. What do you think it is that has made your country so fashionable?

Sato: It's said that the Japanese have many senses, and can see the world in great detail. Which means that we approach an issue from many different angles. This also means we express our feelings in unexpected ways. This is magnified in young Japanese who lack a focus in life, and have lots of pent-up energy. This energy, I believe, is a source of "coolness".

Oka: The secret is agelessness. Cartoons, comics and video games aren't just for kids in Japan, they're for all ages. Takashi Murakami encapsulates this. He's Japan's answer to Andy Warhol, famed for his cartoony paintings and giant inflatable balloons.