The World: From conservative Japan to Cannes presidency

Akira Kagami has broken the Japanese mould of conservatism to judge the world's best creatives.

On the first day at school in Japan, they like to tell the children: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

Hardly a promising philosophy for anyone of a creative bent - the national suspicion of originality suffocated natural, imaginative talent at the font and led to the design-by-committee approach for which Japan was rightly infamous.

Given such a straitjacketed regime, it is understandable that in the likewise once arcane and insular world of Japanese advertising there would be few brave enough to step out of the stultifying salaryman culture and do anything bold.

But there was one man who could not but help stand out, literally, head and shoulders above the rest. Akira Kagami is the six-foot-tall creative chief at Dentsu and the first Japanese to be appointed as an awards jury president for the Cannes Advertising Festival, which takes place in June.

Kagami is certainly a man who stands out in a crowd and remains conspicuous among his peers.

Born in 1948, he may have been the product of the student revolts of 60s and 70s Japan, but it was into the darkly corporate, deeply conservative elitist workplace of the world's largest ad agency where he enlisted in 1971.

Working as a strategist initially, he joined the creative field as a copywriter, finding his niche in TV commercials, and finally as Dentsu's global executive creative director. His current mission is "to go beyond the role of a creative specialist and initiate a catalytic plan for global communication".

As a Dentsu creative, where, like most Japanese outfits, creativity was considered of little importance, the climb to the top was hard. Doggedly fighting the creatives' corner against a culture of conservatism and clients unimpressed with originality, Kagami tried to change Dentsu's ad culture from within.

"He is one of the few creative people to reach high rank in Dentsu and also achieve some recognition outside Japan," David Kilburn, a Japanese media expert and journalist based in Tokyo, says.

"Unusually, among Japanese creatives, he could also articulate his ideas and support them not only with great ease but in ways that someone with a background in advertising in the West could just as easily understand."

Such an approach has helped the Japanese ad industry reach beyond its parochialism and garnered Kagami's work international recognition way beyond previous Japanese efforts on the global stage.

Over the years, he has received numerous awards. As well as the Grand Prix at Japan's ACC Awards, he also won the Grand Prix at the Asia-Pacific Advertising Festival for two consecutive years, for commercials created for the satellite TV broadcaster WOWOW. He has also served as juror at many overseas advertising festivals such as Cannes in 1996 and Clio in 1999.

He sees himself very much as a champion of Asian creativity, introducing Japanese TV commercials as a speaker at overseas conference seminars in places such as Cannes and New York's One Club.

Thanks to the West's exposure to Japanese work, Kagami feels Asian creativity is now more welcomed and admired, if not always understood. "Japanese ads are not always logical," he says. "For example, emotion and laughter are the basis of Japanese advertising, and they cannot be explained logically.

"This, in itself, is a strength and a weakness. One strength of Japanese advertising is its non-traditional style of communication - a product of our media-neutral approach.

"As for Asia, its biggest strength is its diversity of cultures and how that diversity is apparent in their everyday lives. Asians are not too keen on being logical."

His deep understanding of his own backyard, plus the vision to see how his home industry might develop, made Kagami almost unique in Japan, his long-time friend Kilburn says.

Obviously enjoying increasing contact with a world that is beginning to "get" Asia, Kagami says he wants to see Japan and Dentsu adopt a more cosmopolitan approach, but he wants some things to stay the same.

"It's only natural that we'll have to change to reach out globally. But it doesn't mean we have to conform ourselves. We'll proceed by doing things that only we can and maintaining our own identity," he says.

He is also a man who identifies strongly with his home city of Tokyo - a megacity he is still exploring by foot after all these years.

"When I was young, I thought it was important to live in a big city, any big city in the world. But now, I think Tokyo is the best. I can't imagine living anywhere but Tokyo. In this internet age, that may sound strange."

And for relaxation? He likes nothing better than ambling around second-hand book shops. Not unusual for a man who also writes books and translates sci-fi in his spare time.

Despite these pursuits, Kagami is still called the "big fella from Dentsu" - the tall nail of a creative bent that, while bearing the usual load of orthodox thinking, still shines a little brighter than the rest.