It’s easy to assume Dentsu’s business, and Japanese advertising as a whole, is still dominated by media buying, TVCs and celebrities. The model has worked well up until now, but Yasuharu Sasaki knows it won’t last forever.
A computer scientist by training, he says his role is essentially “to change creatives’ minds into up-to-date digital ones”.
In a brief interview with Campaign at Spikes last year, he acknowledged “clients are changing” in their demands and, ideally, want concepts that don’t involve spending big on traditional media or even advertising. That means it’s high time to transform the agency model.
Six months later, he admits: “I’m still struggling”.
Creative solutions, not advertising
“I say to people, we can use anything as a tool for our solutions. That way, copywriters and art directors can come up with bigger ideas—not just beautifully designed graphics or movies, but new business ideas for clients. But it’s very difficult to get classic creative people to think like that.”
Aren’t creative people supposed to be open to new ideas? “They are afraid of new technology and new digital things,” he says. “Even though they use these devices every day. They think, ‘I can’t do programming. I don’t know how it works, therefore I’m going to focus on TVCs and print ads.’”
At the same time, “clients are not trusting advertising” as they used to, meaning that advertising agencies, even those as big as Dentsu, risk “becoming obsolete” if they don’t change accordingly, he says.
Dentsu is investing seriously in building non-advertising-related expertise in the fields of technology, consulting, and disciplines like user experience. The problem is that clients typically don’t think of approaching an agency for that sort of thing.
Sasaki gives the example of a logistics company that began using Line to communicate with users. The company wanted to use the app to improve its service, but only asked Dentsu to design some icons.
“They don't understand that advertising companies can design their business. Actually we can. We can come up with great new business or engagement ideas with users if clients ask us to. But currently we and the clients think we’re just here to make advertising.”
There are exceptions. For example, Dentsu is involved in co-designing a car with a client that wants a different perspective on the finer details.
New players turn up the heat
For most higher-level thinking though, the natural course of action is to look to management consulting firms, he says. Given that such companies are investing in creative capabilities, he describes them as “very dangerous”, although he does not believe they have made the leap to becoming serious creative players—yet.
“It’s a race”, he says. Consultancies are already “good at getting fees from clients”, while agencies’ ability to generate so much money from media has held them back from evolving into true consulting partners, he suggests.
Really changing means bringing in new kinds of people—technologists, programmers, or even just art directors or copywriters who are eager to experiment with technology. Given Dentsu’s prestige in Japan, it comes as a surprise when he says it faces the same challenges as other agencies in attracting them.
“Because we’re still seen as an advertising company, people with tech ability want to work at Google or have their own startup gaming company [for example],” he says. “Graduates think advertising is an old industry. People are surprised to see we’re doing things like AI.”
How to keep up
Dentsu Lab is one way to appeal the right kind of talent. It’s a space in the basement of the company’s towering Tokyo headquarters where Dentsu opens up on a regular basis to outside audiences as it hosts sessions that engage a spectrum of people, from scientists to coders and students.
One common thing Sasaki looks for in all potential joiners is a spirit of entrepreneurialism—something not widely encouraged in Japanese society, but that he says has always been part of Dentsu’s ethos. Indeed, numerous examples, one of them an account director who came to be involved in the development of a space station for a client, suggest that the agency gives a good degree of experimental freedom to trusted people.
“I like to hire the kind of people who like to do their own projects,” he says, adding that he hopes startup culture will become a bigger part of Japanese life. It’s something Dentsu is in a position to support through initiatives like Dentsu Ventures, an investment arm launched last year. The agency stands to benefit by building an infrastructure to work with startups, rather than compete with them.
“Japanese investors are not like US investors,” he observes. “They don’t take risks. We [Japan] don’t have a system to invest in [startups], but young people want to have that kind of system.”
2014: ECD, Dentsu
2013: ECD, Dentsu Aegis Network (New York)
2011: ECD, Dentsu America (New York)
2010: CD, Dentsu
1998: Interactive director, Dentsu
1995: Copywriter, Dentsu
Creativity in Japan is a series by David Blecken and Barry Lustig, managing partner of Cormorant Group, that examines the market's changing creative landscape.