World: Insider's view - Japan

Another premier bites the dust as a malaise descends on Japan's consumers. Perhaps consumer-driven media could be used to rekindle enthusiasm, John Goodman suggests.

News just in: "Japan was stunned by news that prime minister Yasuo Fukuda is stepping down after less than a year in office, plunging the country into another round of political turmoil and raising the possibility of an early general election."

Well, I'm not sure if "stunned" is the right expression. Depressed, certainly, but "an air of morose resignation" would seem to be more accurate. After all, the past 30 years of Japanese politics have seen a constant rotation of prime ministers.

From an ad person's viewpoint, one can argue that none of this matters. The country's economy is still the second biggest in the world, and Japan is sometimes described as the world's only mass market for luxury goods. Wealth-driven consumerism continues to fuel such palaces of desire as Tokyo's immensely successful Midtown complex, a shrine to wealth, style, design and platinum cards. However, underneath this lies a deep malaise. Consumer confidence has never been lower.

This is reflected in the caution among advertisers, particularly the internationals, for which this is not home turf and which see faster growth in other Asian economies.

Over the past few years, we've seen a drop in marketing support behind many international brands, reflecting the high cost of doing business here, and the recognition that a declining, ageing population makes this a slow to no-growth market.

This problem is exacerbated by the market next door. We joke that if China were in Africa, then Japan would receive more attention from Western business. Yet because of its close proximity, it is easy to look at a world map in a London or Chicago boardroom and say Chinese investment is best funded by a local shift in budget within the "A/P region".

From adversity comes opportunity. After all, it's not just politics that are moribund here. The media wholesaler model pursued successfully for 50 years by Dentsu and Hakuhodo is obviously out of step with the modern world of consumer-driven media. Japanese are as active users of Web 2.0 as anyone else, and when it comes to mobile technology, they have led the world for a long time.

Yet, when you ask the media planners of the big two why they still recommend TV as the only medium worth considering, they claim, with a straight face, that the average Japanese manages to increase net media consumption by "sleeping less".

We find we can achieve success for our clients by a diverse and genuinely media-neutral approach. We also hire a breed of more adventurous staff, for whom a snail-like climb over 40-plus years to the top of the Japanese agency ladder is not what they see as a desirable future.

Like most things in Japan, change doesn't happen quickly. But the old monolithic model is crumbling, and the twin citadels of Shiodome and Akasaka look more vulnerable.

- John Goodman is the president of Ogilvy & Mather Japan.