The View From Tokyo

June 14, 2016 / Features

By Michael Stanish

A package of eastern wisdom from Advertising Week Asia.

I first visited Tokyo 22 years ago as an exchange student. Lots has changed since then, but Tokyo still rests on foundations of respect. I’ve talked about this many times, but compared to other major metropolises like New York, Bangkok and even London, Tokyo is mostly silent. In those other cities when you first arrive you hear them before you see them. You can feel the noise as though walking through a mist of sound.

The influence of Zen on Tokyo, and all of Japan is highly evident. Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese, ‘Chan’ which in turn is the translation from the Sanskrit ‘Dhyana’, meaning mediation. The whole city has a meditative quality. At times, when not silent, it’s as though the whole city is whispering at you. It doesn’t take lightly to messing up the meditative matrix, and Japan will let you know when the matrix has been broken, in no uncertain terms.

Perhaps Tokyo at first doesn’t seem like a natural choice of location for the Asian chapter of this event. Surely Shanghai, Hong Kong or Singapore would be closer to the target audience and a host city that would be more prospective? Yet, if you look a little deeper, it’s by far the best choice. The written characters for Tokyo themselves mean Eastern Capital. While it was named so after taking over the mantle from it’s further westerly sibling in Kyoto, it has a wonderful symbolism for the leadership it has perpetually shown in the region. Economically it was the pioneer of the Super Economies of Asia. Its unrelenting growth of the 50s and 60s dubbed Japan the post war miracle. Tokyo – the gateway to the future. This miracle gave birth to the new economies of the Asian Tigers, Sing, HK, Taiwan, South Korea.

Japanese brands at the time were unknown, and unannounced, the likes of Toyota, Sony, Honda, Mitsubishi, Panasonic and Canon momentously became not only household names around the world, but the benchmark for any manufactured product.

Japan went into rebuild mode, as though an injured athlete, determined solely to get back to the top of the world. With humbleness, regret, honour and respect, the nation pulled itself out of a terrible mark on its history and proved what it can do in peaceful times.

Today’s Japan, after two decades of economic stagnation, could seemingly do with a boost. It’s had devastating hard luck. An economy that had been just starting to grow, doing better again after the 1997 Asian Crash, had the wind taken out of its sails in 2008 with the GFC. But Japan has a word for keeping on going, ‘Gambaru’. It roughly means to fight; to keep fighting without giving up. Actually, when at a sporting event, the Japanese pronounced ‘Faito’ is regularly interchangeable with ‘Gambaru’. If any country on the planet can get through hardship it’s Japan. The Japanese have an incredible resilience and unity where they will work together, despite any adversity to achieve their objectives. On the road to recovery again, another blow hit in 2011 as the Tohoku Earthquake pulled the rug from underneath.

Some political acne along the way, has held the nation back at times, but their resilience is showing again, and with the excitement of the 2020 Olympics, when in Tokyo, and talking to old friends, there seems to be the impenetrable fight still in the citizens of Tokyo and no doubt Japan.

The history of advertising in Japan is rich. Richer than any of the Asian markets. You may think Japanese advertising is just bonkers ads, which a large part is, but there is such great depth in storytelling, emotion and craft.

Of course they are known for media ruling the landscape. The clearest outcome of this is that most TV ads were 15 seconds while the rest of the world were making 60s and 30-second cut downs. The cost of media meant that was all the time they had to tell their stories. This led to a certain agency model that one may cynically consider the template for the shift to media-driven advertising in the west. Sell creative cheaply, lure the client, then grab them with the expensive media. It’s basically the model of selling narcotics, or printers and toner.

Now, to the actual story of Advertising Week Asia.

When you walk into the Midtown plaza, there’s immediately a sense that it’s an Asian event. Compared to the patina of the Picture House in Piccadilly, in the first instance it feels terribly corporate and sterile. I initially wonder whether I’ve entered a dentist’s conference rather than the glamour juxtaposed with seediness misfits of an advertising event. I guess it’s a good indicator of the differences between the two cultures I have so dearly adopted. 

I thought, surely the conservatism of the backdrop perfectly predicts what I’m about to experience at Advertising Week. I go in thinking I’m about to hear that gone are the days of misfits and rebels ruling the corridors of ad agencies, now we are in an era of media companies taking up the most expensive city real estate, full of rows of data analysts. Goodbye to the university drop outs, realising that the system just breeds the same, and hello Ivy League graduates crunching data and targeting potential buyers with surgical precision. 

So, when you look at the surface, you may be skeptical as a creative type. There’s not much creative content at Advertising Week. There is definitely an emphasis on the larger chunk of spend that CMOs will mostly likely burden. Lots about Media Media Media.

Every platform is represented by their most senior of executives, well rehearsed and details in their sales. You’d easily come out thinking that TV is dead, and the only engagement is on a social platform. The precision of which will finally make the creative type redundant, and we have 100% optimization with their platform.

Yet, looking past all the media discussion, it was evident that it is still ideas that drive what we do. Except now, the multi platform is considered way earlier than it was in the past. Social first rather than TV first. In fact, the trend seems to be selling a media first approach, and work out what best to do on each platform. Which, with the added benefit of getting your idea across to someone who really wants to hear it, means brands will be able to sell more product.

It was a slick operation, organized with the utmost professionalism, and most importantly, when I was looking at the speakers program, I felt a sense of excitement to listen to some incredible people. The Advertising Week team is surely connected. They managed to get an a-list of speakers that the G7 summit in Japan’s Ise-shima the week before would have been happy to secure.

The keynote program was a winner. The whole morning with the biggest names, speaking to the entire delegation was a great format. It meant I didn’t feel like I was missing out on something. In London I constantly felt like I missed something I should have been at. With the main keynotes, my appetite for inspiration and information was satisfied.

So, beyond all the discussion of media, the bright shining lights were two sessions that particularly inspired me. Complete eye openers, because of their raw and honest nature.

The inimitable Masahiko Uotani-san, the CEO of Shiseido. Here is a man that explains that he was surprised to have been asked to lead one of Japan’s most important brands. His humbleness is refreshing after listening to the stealth sales of the main media companies. On the announcement of his appointment, he says he had 700 calls and emails from politicians to celebrities to family members, unanimously saying that if he rejuvenates Shiseido, he rejuvenates Japan.

Even for the former CEO of Coke Japan that was seemingly a huge amount of pressure. In a society where opening up is not common, it was incredible to listen to this leader humbly, openly, honestly depict the landscape that’s been before and comes ahead.

His message is that marketing is not just a cost center. It adds value, and in times of uncertainty, the most important area to spend is marketing to strengthen your brand. It is in these times, when your competitors will start retreating that you can gain the most ground.

Uotani-san was humble in his speech, perfect English with a Japanese accent. He encompassed everything that I love about Japan. Sincere, honorable, welcoming and a great sense of humour. 

The other moment that stuck with me was the discussion between Kashiwa Sato and Hiroshi Sasaki, two creatives described to me as though it’s not dissimilar to a conversation between Dan Wieden and Sir John Hegarty. Looking at their portfolio, From the Tommy Lee Jones Boss ads written by Sasaki-san, to the indelible designs of Uniqlo, they are stalwarts of the Japanese industry. It may be even bigger than a discussion between Dan and John.

It was then no surprise that the two pop stars of advertising in this country had the fullest auditorium. The crowds spilling out to the foyer, reminiscent of one of my middle school Polish church communion days. Yes, I’m comparing these guys to God. Or at least my school’s priest and his sidekick. The difference is that I was really keen to listen to what they had to say. 

They came out talking about their history, about what it is to create such loved commercials and design. There was no other session with so many laughs. Admittedly, I didn’t catch a lot of the jokes, but it was such a pleasure to see a room get so much enjoyment out of two creatives that are so revered. By far they had the most engaging response from the room.

Uotani-san’s humble nature, extolling the virtues of marketing and getting the brand’s audience to feel an emotion and the creative panel of Sasaki-san and Sato-san, icons of the industry, conversing that the creative side of advertising is still what drives the industry were my highlights. It shows, regardless of platform, that idea is king. Sasaki-san in his closing words said it might be trendy to say TV is done for, everything else is taking over, but don’t just say that to be like the others. There’s a huge validity to it, and discounting it doesn’t serve anyone well. It was a clear reminder to me that the misfits will always rule the advertising industry. Even if the jocks are now making more money, they still want to be like the creatives.

Sasaki-san and Sato-san and Uotani-san, oozing charisma that transcends any culture, showed me that despite all of this discussion about media, data and precise targeting, if you don’t have a great pull that makes whoever you’re targeting feel something, all that back end is nothing without a great idea. The warning I heard from a number of Japanese colleagues is just don't give away the creative for cheap to sell more media. It’s what’s stifled the industry in Japan, and selling cheap printers and expensive toner is kinda uncool.

In between all the visiting nationals, from Facebook, Google, Mondelez, Disney, and a plethora of others, the two sessions that most stuck with me were Japanese. My only regret: I wish I could have seen every panel, every session, because as I’ve learned from being at my second Advertising Week, you will learn at least one thing in every session. For now, I will take home another week of lessons that I will apply to my thinking to serve our clients better. I’m grateful to Advertising Week for an affordable week of absorbing knowledge.

Michael Stanish is a Founding Partner of Ground Control.

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  • An excellent view from Tokyo and glad to find a package of eastern wisdom from Advertising Week Asia. Thanks for describing here the history of advertising in Japan is rich.


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  • The entrepreneurs once again plan to brave Times Square for a week, issues about the direction of New York’s now-eminent development need simple solutions. The event began from a call in 2006 when the Worth of Advertising board was exploring for a way to bring new talent and attention to the industry’s offerings to the US.

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  • Tokyo is a gorgeous city from any angle, but nothing compares to those skylines viewed from 40 floors up.

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