Advertising Week Asia got underway on Monday with the heads of Dentsu and Hakuhodo coming together on stage for apparently the first time in the companies’ history.
Moderated by Yoshihiko Kasamatsu, the event’s executive producer, the session looked at how Toshihiro Yamamoto (president and CEO of Dentsu) and Masayuki Mizushima (president and CEO of Hakuhodo) got their starts in advertising, how they see the future of the business and the rules they live by.
Following Japanese corporate tradition, both men have spent their entire careers at their respective companies, joining as graduate trainees. Yamamoto joined Dentsu in 1981, while Mizushima joined Hakuhodo in 1982. Kasamatsu himself worked at both companies over the course of his career.
Neither leader had any great passion for advertising in the beginning. Mizushima said he was attracted to the industry because it didn’t seem to require any specific expertise, and because he was interested in people. Yamamoto said his job-hunting period was “not really serious” and, somewhat unexpectedly, that he ended up joining Dentsu because he failed to pass Hakuhodo’s entrance exam.
As if to repay the compliment, Mizushima said he remembered Dentsu’s corporate message—to go three steps ahead of everyone else—as making a strong impression, but that he did not remember Hakuhodo’s message. Still, once inside, he realised he had entered a company and profession that demanded a lot of hard work.
“We must use the knowledge we’ve gained [over time] to produce something better, more efficient, more beautiful, more powerful. We must take that leadership and not let society change us.”
—Toshihiro Yamamoto, president and CEO, Dentsu
The session did not touch on the topic of work culture, or work reforms—one of the biggest concerns in Japanese advertising in recent years and one that both companies are apparently still grappling with. Instead, Kasamatsu proceeded to ask the leaders to define the role of advertising. Yamamoto said he saw it as being to raise, or at least unlock, the value of something. Mizushima said he agreed but saw it more as being to form a connection between people and things.
The conversation then turned to how advertising is likely to change in the future. Mizushima noted that advertising had already taken various forms throughout different decades. He pointed to the 1990s as the decade of branding, a notable observation considering the number of experienced advertising executives working in Japan today who describe the market as one where no one understands branding.
Mizushima’s conclusion was that change in advertising is continuous and something to be embraced, but that consumers are no longer looking for “plain, normal campaigns” and that the industry needed to step up to offer something more interesting. He said he expected the emergence of more channels for communication to result in more diversified advertising.
Yamamoto took a slightly bolder position. He said while advertising companies do need to adapt according to societal changes, they should take the initiative to change rather than simply being carried along with the flow. “We must use the knowledge we’ve gained [over time] to produce something better, more efficient, more beautiful, more powerful,” he said. “We must take that leadership and not let society change us.”
Yamamoto added that the advertising industry has a duty to question whether its activities are actually contributing to society. “Once we reach that level, we can be confident that the industry is going in the right direction,” he said.
Mizushima said amid digital transformation and changing corporate structures, it was necessary to continue to put emphasis on creativity. “We’d like to contribute to society by nurturing creativity more,” he said.
Asked how advertising professionals should cope with change, Mizushima said they should expand the scope of the areas they work in, suggesting the need to look beyond advertising and communications. “You have to be curious about everything,” he said. “I would say as advertising companies we can do whatever we want.”
Yamamoto agreed that the “boundaries are becoming blurred”. He conceded that activities that had brought success in the past may not apply in the future, “so we have to be bold enough to discard past experiences”.
“If there was a product I was in charge of, I was always the first to try it out. If in charge of a car account I would drive that car. Smart speakers, IoT—I’m always the first to buy those things and I always brag about it to other people.”
—Masayuki Mizushima, president and CEO, Hakuhodo
Kasamatsu brought the session to a close by asking the leaders to outline their rules for living. Yamamoto said he chooses to think of himself as someone who is “not fully mature”, a mindset that encourages continuous change. Mizushima said he makes a point of always trying new things and emphasised the value of first-hand experience.
“If there was a product I was in charge of, I was always the first to try it out,” he said. “If in charge of a car account I would drive that car. Smart speakers, IoT—I’m always the first to buy those things and I always brag about it to other people.” He added that socialising is very important at every stage of life.
“As we get older we are more reluctant to go out but I always push myself to go out and have fun. I don’t have much time but I feel it’s important to do that,” he said.
Campaign’s view: Advertising Week achieved an impressive feat in bringing the two leaders together on stage. It was interesting to get a (very slight) glimpse of what drives the men behind two of Japan’s most influential companies. Still, we had hoped to see time given over to how they are dealing with internal cultural challenges at their firms, such as work reform and diversity of talent, as well as issues such as transparency and challenges from the technology sector. It would also have been good to see Yamamoto and Mizushima question and even challenge each other directly. That they did not take the opportunity to do so was somewhat surprising. Neither outlined a very clear vision as to how the advertising industry needs to change or where they see the biggest opportunities for growth, but it was at least encouraging that they see the need for the business of advertising to evolve.