Wieden + Kennedy (W+K) made its name in Japan with pieces such as Nike’s ‘Blind Jumper’, branding work for Uniqlo and the brand identity of Kumon, a private education network whose logo is instantly recognisable for its ‘thinking face’, which was seen as provocative and even controversial when it launched.
A full-time job? No thanks
The agency’s distinct creative principles and process remain in place today, but the environment it operates in is quite different. Notably, hiring creative people has become more difficult. John Rowe, managing director of the office since March 2015, described a recent scenario where a young creative turned down the offer of a full-time position at the agency in favour of a job at a convenience store and ad-hoc freelance work.
It’s indicative of a broader trend affecting the advertising industry in Japan, once known for its lifetime employment system and unusually loyal employees. Now, full-time employment of any kind is becoming a questionable concept.
“The way people want to work has changed,” says Mike Farr, co-ECD with Tota Hasegawa. Farr has been at W+K for 14 years with nearly five in Tokyo; Hasegawa for seven years. Hasegawa goes as far as to say that the level of work produced by many freelancers is “much better than that of people at big ad agencies”.
Their reluctance to join the system is partly due to the perception of a harsh working environment. But it’s also about having the freedom to pursue personal creative projects and pick and choose work that feels meaningful. These people “are talented but put creativity above the career ladder”, says Farr.
“We’re definitely looking for more of a needle in the haystack,” agrees Rowe. None of the three can say whether the ‘part-time creative’ trend will sustain itself, since it’s really just starting. For now, they are trying to work with it, because they see value in what these people have to offer.
“We’ll try to come to some agreement, a new type of contract that works for us and works for them,” Rowe says. “This helps us expand as necessary and take on new projects versus long-term work. If you have a healthy connection to the freelance market, you can bring in people as you need, which helps them and helps us.”
Since the suicide of a Dentsu employee put work-life balance under the microscope in 2016, W+K has experimented with measures to give people more free time, including early closure on Fridays, which Rowe claims has decreased overtime by 43%. That is considerably more success than the government’s Premium Friday campaign, introduced in 2017 to free workers from the office early on the last Friday of the month, which appears to have sunk without trace.
It’s all about context
As a privately-owned company, W+K has more flexibility than most, but it faces similar challenges to all international agencies in Japan in putting local clients at ease with a style of working that’s very different to that of the biggest domestic players. Those that come, such as Shiseido, are apparently attracted by the friction that comes from rubbing Japanese and western cultures against each other.
While friction is necessary to spark original work, listening is seen as the most important quality, especially for non-Japanese staff. Farr describes Japan as “an extremely humbling place to come and be a creative” because of the central place social context holds in any work that is produced. However successful a company or individual might be internationally, in Japan they must acknowledge their limitations.
“When I first came I couldn’t package ideas clearly because they were so nuanced,” Farr says. “You had to understand the whole of Japanese culture and place the brief within that culture. When you come here as a creative you cannot direct people because all the ideas that connect with people in a deeply emotional way are all about the context and all about the culture, so all you can do is to listen, to interrogate, to try to understand exactly where the idea comes from and then analyse that and try to get them to improve on it.”
W+K still likes to position itself as an outsider, but it’s having to reckon with dwindling consumer attention spans just like everyone else. Hasegawa, who used to work for the UK design firm Tomato, said the ad industry had never previously appealed to him, but W+K felt somehow different.
“We’re not a company full of people who love advertising,” Farr says. “In advertising there’s a lot of ‘advertising and marketing speak’—accepted ways of talking about things—and when you have a healthy disdain for that kind of world, then you use that power to do something that’s honest, human and real.”
Farr thinks the reason most advertising is unremarkable is because its designed to please the client. “It’s easy to write an ad you know the client will buy; it’s much harder to create something regular people would like,” he says.
What do people like? They don’t know until they see it. Farr talks about the increased need to “hit people over the head” with a piece of content while they are scrolling on their phone, which sounds surprising for an agency known for its intricate film work. “When you think of stopping someone in their tracks, it’s not the same kind of craft that goes into long narrative storytelling. It’s bold and bright and in-your-face.”
But he still sees a role for long-form content. “It either needs to be very short or very long. If you like a piece of content, you want more than 30 seconds. But if you don’t like it, 30 seconds is a lot of time to put up with.”