Japan’s ad agencies are getting more recognition, but can its creatives spark social change?
Japan has been inspiring creativity for centuries. To mark the success of Dentsu Tokyo and TBWA\Hakuhodo in this year's World Creative Rankings, The Drum takes the pulse of the Japanese agency scene and discovers how its ad creatives hope to nudge the public towards a more progressive future.
Famous for its artistic traditions, from Ukiyo-e paintings and Shin-hanga woodcuts to Manga, Hello Kitty and the exquisite animation of Studio Ghibli, Japan’s creative heritage has inspired the world for centuries.
So, it's only fair that the creative abilities of its ad agencies are getting their share of reverence. Relatively quiet on the awards circuit, in recent years Japanese agencies have gotten better at shouting about their work, a fact demonstrated by their performance in this year’s World Creative Rankings, where Japanese agencies Dentsu and TBWA\Hakuhodo dominated.
Until recently, the Japanese ad market has been relatively closed off from the rest of the world. Dominated by Dentsu, with a 28% share of the market, several western agencies like BBH, Fallon, Saatchi & Saatchi and FCB have been and gone, while the likes of TBWA\Hakuhodo and Grey Japan have stayed strong. There is also a growing independent network. “Like other parts of the world, digital agencies and consultancies like Accenture are gaining presence in the market,” explains Yasu Sasaki, head of digital creative and executive creative director at Dentsu Tokyo, which placed first in the worldwide agency category of this yea‘s World Creative Rankings.
In Japan, agencies are becoming more specialized according to their individual needs, rather than one agency controlling all touchpoints, explains Masanori Tagaya, executive creative director at Grey Tokyo (joint 60th in the World Creative Rankings, and 9th in the APAC agency category. “Ideas are still important, but the means of getting them across to our consumers are becoming more diverse.”
Once remote work becomes the norm, Tagaya believes that more creatives will become independent. “I think people will be more flexible about working alone and coming together and collaborating according to their own requirements.”
“As Japanese, we are always focusing on the very detailed craftsmanship of our designs,” says Sasaki. “Thinking about Japanese creativity, people say that we are good at design, craft and innovation,” He explains that Japanese agencies are particularly willing to explore new technologies like AI, VR and AR. “We’re good at connecting design and creativity with innovation,” he adds.
Considering its creative capability, Tagaya admits he has always thought that Japan does not win enough awards. He reflects on why things are changing and puts it down to greater awareness of Japan’s creative heritage, “it looks fresh and appealing to non-Japanese people, something new relative to the past.”
Similarly, Yousuke Ozawa, creative director at Tokyo-based indie agency UltraSuperNew recons Japan is winning more because it is rapidly becoming more globalized, with attention going outwards. “The domestic companies are starting to venture overseas and want creatives who understand that perspective,” he says. “So inevitably, the demand for global creatives goes up and ideas become acceptable overseas.”
Despite the outward appeal, Tagaya notes that the Japanese market can be challenging for foreigners from diverse cultured countries to understand the interesting and exciting aspects of Japanese advertisements.
“Japan is a homogeneous country, and advertisements are usually delivered in high context,” he explains. “Many of our TV commercials are in a 15-second format, with most of them being product-centric commercials. Only a few brand commercials or longer movies are suitable for global award submissions. However, we see an increasing trend for more digital movie creations – so change is slowly taking place.”
Dentsu’s Sasaki highlights how Japanese clients have a different attitude to clients in the west. Work like Burger King’s ‘Moldy Whopper’ campaign has kept it winning trophies, and the brand took the top spot in the client category of the World Creative Ranking this year, but awards don’t always equate to more burgers sold.
“Japanese clients are interested in selling more,” he insists. “For creative people, it is not easy to create western, award-winning brand campaigns as Burger King does.” While this can be difficult for creatives, at the same time, because brands are interested in finding ways to connect with people, Sasaki says agencies are inspired to create a great solution for both clients and customers, to make people happy.
In recent years, western advertisers have been racing to keep up with increasingly progressive audiences. In Japan, however, Sasaki admits that gender equality is still a challenge for brands. “Japanese culture is old, classic and still closed,” he shares. “So, we struggle to have gender equality. The challenge agencies face is how to solve those complicated challenges. We need diverse viewpoints,” Sasaki explains.
Back in 2017, Dentsu opened a specialist network called MamaLab within its Asia Pacific business. It encouraged female marketers who had children to offer services to brands to help them target mothers better. “We are trying to [offer] diverse points of views,” Sasaki says.
And, equal rights for the LGBT+ community still lags. According to a survey conducted by Dentsu, at least one in 11 people in Japan identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Despite this, legal marriage remains limited to heterosexual couples, the only country within the G7 still not to recognise same-sex couples at all. However, progress was made last month when a district court in Sapporo ruled the government’s failure to recognize same-sex marriage was “unconstitutional.”
Since 2015, Dentsu has been involved in Tokyo’s Rainbow Pride. Organized annually with the goal of fostering acceptance of the LGBT+ community in Japanese society, each year the agency sets up a booth – The Rainbow Research Booth – where it showcases its LGBT+ market research and survey results, equipped with a rainbow wedding cake to celebrate that 78.4% of people approve of same-sex marriage and a lip-shaped photo frame for people to express ‘coming out of the closet’.
Last year, Grey Tokyo created ‘This Hair is Me’ for Pantene. It featured an interview with two transgender individuals, who spoke about their experiences job hunting in Japan. The ad paid homage to gender identity as well as its nuances in modern-day Japanese society.
For the casting of the Pantene film, Tagaya says he cast the two transgender people because they reflected the brand message well. “We didn't do it for the sake of ‘doing good‘ but because it’s a critical piece of brand purpose and social insight,” he argues.
“We thought hard about how hair can change our society, and that execution became stronger because of the transgender actors’ strong commitment to our idea.”
Tagaya says he is always on the continuous lookout for issues relating to the United Nation‘s Sustainable Development Goals. “In fact, advertisement works like an amplifier, helping to amplify small, unheard voices. Through this, I hope to contribute my advertising skills to society,” he says.
The Drum is celebrating this year’s standout performers, and their work, in a special series of editorial features collected on our World Creative Rankings hub. And if you would like to get your hands on the entire World Creative Rankings dataset, you can order our full PDF report.
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