The World's Leading Independent Agencies: Tugboat

For Tugboat's creative director, a trip to Europe drove him to challenge Japan's ad establishment.

Japan is a huge ad vessel - the second-biggest ad market in the world - but the place is still a mystery to the Western market.

With the growing global appeal of modern Japanese culture in the form of animation, games, gadgets and designs, you might that assume Japan's ad industry is really happening. Lots of hotshops battling over unique ideas? Unfortunately not. Not yet, anyway.

As you might have gathered from our name, running an independent agency in Japan is a tough haul. But it seemed as though our years of struggle had been acknowledged last year when we won the Grand Prix at two of this country's major creative awards. Our credit-card client Life Card's campaign, "Life is about which card you choose", was awarded the top prize by the ACC (All-Japan Commercial Confederation), while our long-running print campaign for Maglite flashlights was honoured with the Grand Prix at the Tokyo Art Directors' Club awards.

It felt as though we'd come a long way since 1999, when I set up Tugboat with my team at that time: Seijo Kawaguchi (art director), and Taku Tada and Tetsuro Aso (copywriters). They were already among the top creatives in the industry and they wanted to raise their game even higher. On starting the agency, we set ourselves two goals. The first was to challenge the main rule of Japanese advertising by making creativity our focus. The second was to take that creativity global.

These may sound like modest goals to you, but in the context of the Japanese advertising industry, they were acts of defiance.

Ironically, the motivation for starting Tugboat came when my previous agency sent me to Europe to find out how creative agencies there worked. I was deeply inspired by what I saw: creative directors my age running their own agencies and working with advertisers at a management level. They were determined to push the boundaries of creativity. They formed close partnerships with their clients, who encouraged them to take risks and took pride in the results. I realised I was looking at the ideal model of the advertising business. I felt that, sooner or later, somebody would adopt this approach in Japan, so it might as well be me. Almost as soon as I had filed the report on my trip, I handed in my resignation and set up Tugboat.

For me, advertising is about people. Great creative work is about moving people. No matter how much the method changes, this fundamental remains the same. But advertising in Japan is all about the media. The market is dominated by giant media-driven agencies. It is hard for start-ups or independents to survive, and is why the outposts of global networks have a hard time succeeding in Japan.

This industry structure is fatal to creativity. Great ideas are sacrificed to the economics of media. Sustaining our independence and creative quality against this backdrop has been a constant battle. It's why the awards of 2006 meant something, and sent a clear signal to all independent agencies.

Until recently, I worried that my dream of a creative revolution in Japan would never come true. We seemed isolated and eccentric, alone in a culture that tends to hammer down the nail that sticks out. But now, other nails are starting to emerge from the woodwork. We just need more clients who think creatively, because without them a great idea won't succeed.

At Tugboat, we are fortunate to have a number of encouraging clients, some of whom we share with other agencies: Fuji Xerox, Japan railway, Kirin brewery (with the agency ADK), Life Card (with I&S BBDO), Maglite, NTT Docomo (with Dentsu) and Pioneer in-car navigation (with ADK). As you can see, we collaborate with advertisers, and with other agencies too, as a creative consultancy. That's because we care more about the creative challenge than the billing of business.

Our global approach is equally ambitious. We have participated in numerous creative pitches, offering ideas to collaborate with advertisers and agencies around the world. This did not bear fruit until 2005, when we won the global campaign for the iRiver portable multimedia player. It was probably the first international campaign for an overseas advertiser that a Japanese independent agency had worked on. The campaign ran in major cities in Europe, the US and Asia.

In 2007, to further support our global goals, we established a satellite office in London. Again, it's about people. The London office will enable us to offer greater support to the people we work with, as well as making it easier to communicate with our audiences. We hope this will lead to further partnerships with advertisers in Europe and the US, who may be interested in a fresh angle from Tokyo. We might be known as Tugboat, but these days we're sailing in a much bigger ocean.

Yasumichi Oka is the creative director, CEO and co-founder of Tugboat.


Name: Tugboat

Founded: 1999

Principals: Yasumichi Oka, Seijo Kawaguchi, Taku Tada, Tetsuro Aso

Staff: 16

Locations: Tokyo and London

What's the future for independent agencies? The names and the approaches will change, but the spirit of challenging the establishment will remain a constant

How will you be part of it? By continuing the work of our agency and hoping this will inspire future independents.