Shimizu believes his agency has found success in the US precisely because it has escaped the boundaries of traditional Japanese agency culture and national identity. And he argues that Japanese brands that have made the successful transition to global business are more or less following the same model.
In addition to his advice for Japanese agencies, Shimizu offers a host of recommendations for advertisers in general, asking us to return to building things with our hands and calling for major changes to how we position ourselves and define success. Having recently added Google and Spotify to its client list, Party certainly appears to be on to something. Read on for Shimizu’s take on how agencies will succeed in the future.
Why did Party start an office in New York?
We wanted to make some noise not only in Japan but also outside of Japan. If we make some noise in New York City, it’s going to be noise that’s heard around the world. The Japanese advertising industry is very isolated. New York City is very diverse. We wanted to jump into this kind of environment and challenge ourselves in a different way.
Why is ‘making noise’ important for you and Party?
We need to make meaningful things. The stuff that wins at award shows must be explained logically and mostly doesn't have any meaning for people. If we can ignore awards shows, we can make meaningful work. Think about the work of Picasso. No one can explain why his paintings are good. It’s really difficult to describe. It’s the same with every other kind of literature or art. They cannot be described in terms of logic. Of course, we are not artists, we are doing commercial things. But we don't have to limit ourselves to explainable creations.
What would be an example of a creation without logic?
For example, we created Disco Dog. This is a wearable device for a dog with a programmable LED screen. This is very useful. When you are walking a dog in the night, it can be dangerous. By wearing this device, you can help secure your dog’s safety. Your phone also connects to the device so you can help alert people that your dog needs help.
When we launched this project there was no logic to it. We just wanted to make a wearable device for dogs. It wasn't a client project but it was meaningful for other people and to us. We released Disco Dog as a Kickstarter project. It was a huge success and we made a lot of new contacts this way. We were on Good Morning America [the most-watched morning show in the US], the Discovery Channel, CNN and many other national media outlets. With Disco Dog, we were able to capture the attention of some big American clients and win their business. This is a kind of new way to expand our business and creations.
How important are Party’s Japanese origins to its work in New York?
We are not a Japanese company actually. We are just a New York-based, diverse company. This is an important thing. Of course, I was born in Japan, but I am just another person working in New York City. It doesn't matter that I am Japanese. I don't care about the nationality of whom we are going to hire.
Seventy percent of our business in New York is from U.S. companies. Our clients include Google, Spotify and others I cannot yet tell you about. Thirty percent of our business is from Japanese companies like Toyota and Sony.
How do you define a creative technologist?
A creative technologist should be an interpreter. Creative directors want to make something great, send it into the market and see how much they can make noise in the world. Technical people like programmers are mostly interested in the process. Of course, some of them are interested in results, but their primary interest is in the construction of technology.
Creative technologists need to speak these two languages and translate between motivations. They need to be able to define the challenging creative missions as well as the challenge of the technical processes. A lot of people call themselves creative technologists in our industry, but my opinion is that a creative technologist who can’t code can’t do their work. It’s impossible. Every creative technologist should be able to code and construct output themselves. Ninety-five percent of creative technologists cannot do this.
Can creative technologists transfer into communications from other industries?
In startup fields, a lot of people can do this. There are usually much better working conditions at startups in terms of salary and in terms of the challenge in the work itself than what we offer as an industry.
To compete, it’s critical that agencies make themselves good working environments. Imagine R/GA. Some of the teams that I know of within R/GA are originating Web services by themselves. They have the freedom to work like that.
Most of the traditional agencies don't provide freedom to their staff and they also ignore the importance of process. R/GA understands the importance of process. Even though R/GA’s R&D team doesn't make any output, the company appreciates the importance of R&D.
In most other agencies, process isn’t regarded as something that’s important. They request a technologist to create some kind of magical idea from the outside but a technology is not magic. Technology is kind of a process. Traditional agencies don’t understand this.
How important is Japanese identity to the success of Japanese brands abroad?
Every Japanese company that wants to be global should give up on being Japanese. Most Japanese companies are trying to manipulate their branches outside of Japan from the Japan headquarters. This is an impossible model. By not worrying about being Japanese, they can give independence to their American managers, their European Managers and managers everywhere. Toyota is doing well at this. Toyota headquarters in the U.S. seems to have a lot of independence.
What is the key ingredient to success abroad for Japanese brands?
Injecting flexibility into their products. Imagine sushi. Sushi is overwhelming the world. And sushi has flexibility. Sushi in California and Sushi in Japan are totally different. Sushi is a kind of open-source program. The notion is that sushi can be changed depending on the environment. We didn't export sushi as-is. We exported sushi as a notion.
Uniqlo is doing this. They are just exporting a concept. They are always changing their product, way to retail and branding depending on their market. Many Japanese brands do not have flexibility to change their brand and product to meet the needs of their local customers. This inflexibility makes it hard for them to succeed.
What is the most important factor in Party’s creative process?
Our creative process is based on our skill sets. For example, I am a programmer, designer, and a creative director. Jamie Carreiro is our tech director. He can work with electric circuits as well as in film direction. We are all taking on many kinds of roles.
We are a kind of agency but we are also a production company. Do you remember Disco Dog? For this product, we didn't use any external resources. The hardware was constructed by Jamie, the iPhone application was developed by me. Everything was done on the inside. We start the creative process by using our hands. We can design by ourselves, we can program ourselves. When we collaborate with outsiders, we know how to work with them.
Barry Lustig is managing partner of Cormorant Group, a Tokyo-based business and creative strategy consultancy.