For the first part of our series on female leadership in Japan, we speak to Chieko Ohuchi. Ohuchi was recently appointed to lead one of Dentsu’s six creative divisions. This made her the first woman and the first planner, to lead a creative division at Dentsu. She is arguably the most influential female manager in Dentsu.
In this interview, Ohuchi gives insight into the future of planning and creative work, and practical advice on how to succeed in advertising. For her, demonstrating ability through results for clients and finding strong role models among peers are critical ingredients for success.
How is the discipline of planning changing?
First, the goal of planning has not changed. We solve problems for our clients and, if we do a good job, help make the world a better place. But the scope of what planners need to consider, and the tools we use, have changed. In the past, planners were primarily concerned with straightforward communications planning. Now planning is more connected and integrated than ever.
The big change is the expansion of our work from pure communication planning to business development as well. Clients expect more from the activities we do. They don't only want to see good advertising, but ask if we sold more products, moved people’s hearts and are expanding their brand’s potential. There are so many results now that clients are expecting beyond the quality of a creative solution.
How is the relationship between planners and creatives changing?
Generally speaking, creative and planning disciplines are not that separate anymore. It's not enough for strategists to focus on what to say; they also need to be able to suggest what to do. They have to be able to suggest specifically what activities need to be implemented to help our clients meet their goals.
At the same time, creative people used to just make creative work. They have to think not only what they do creatively, but the effects of what we want the creative to accomplish. So the two disciplines are supporting each other much more closely, and the areas are coming together.
In the past, account planners gave the baton to the creatives after the brief and so on. You do your part and then it’s someone else’s turn to do theirs. Now we must work more cooperatively. So we also include people with specific skills like PR and media strategy. We need a variety of skills to make teams stronger.
Why do you think that a planner was chosen to lead one of the most influential creative divisions at Dentsu?
What I need to do in this position is to expand the potential of creative work, and grow from advertising and communications to providing business solutions. This includes initiating collaboration among professionals from various fields -- media, PR, digital and also the client. I think my role is to coordinate that kind of activity.
I used to work in Dentsu’s Communications Design Center (CDC), an integrated creative planning group. There I worked across various communications disciplines. The same goes for Yasaharu Sasaki who was leading digital in CDC when I was there. He’s now leading another creative division and has a similar interdisciplinary outlook.
Why has Japanese advertising produced so few senior female leaders?
The situation has changed in recent years. In the past, clients were not always comfortable if a woman was leading media or advertising for their business. Speaking generally, women were not seen to inspire the same confidence in their external counterparts as men.
I don't know if it's the cause and effect, but many women are not given the experience of leading teams early on in their career.
In my own career, in my later 20s, I was given the opportunity to lead a small project team. I was fortunate to be able to deliver results that exceeded their expectations. After that, my managers gave me more and bigger opportunities. I also found that it was important to take responsibility for the work of my teams.
Importantly, I worked with outstanding account executives and they became my role models. It was important for me to be learning from good examples at the company and from people who were at the same level as me.
What are some of the biggest challenges for women in advertising?
Managers may come to you with a brief like: because you are a woman you’d be really good at this project; or because you're a mother you should really try this. I don't agree with this approach. It's important for people to look at the totality of our expertise.
I recommend that young women not limit themselves to areas that are primarily of concern to other women. Prove yourself capable in other areas too. Define your own interests and where you are strongest.
If you are succeeding in an area that’s just for women, people might think that you’re succeeding in an area because the domain is an easier one for women to work on. When you succeed on work beyond female-focused accounts, even sceptics will understand that you’re for real. It is my wish that women see the value in themselves as who they are, regardless of gender.
If you’re having a hard time finding new opportunities, find a project that you can work on by yourself to prove your ability, or just be honest with your boss and express your desire to work on different kinds of accounts.
What were your most important lessons of your career?
Of course, the work is hard at certain times, but I was able to keep moving forward. It's a wonderful job to do. We can make a real difference in people’s lives and help make the world a better place.
One of the best parts of our job is that we have teammates to supporting us and we all work toward the same goal together. The people whom I have worked with for a long time are treasures to me. Work is enjoyable with people you like and believe in.
You also have to enjoy the constant change in our profession. I don't know if this is good advice, but I do believe this: be adaptable and flexible. Your clients may change and your working section may change. But in the end, you’ll be happy that you were adaptable. I believe people grow from experiences like that.
What’s the most important advice you can give to your junior colleagues?
My suggestion is to focus on over-delivering on client requests and on client-oriented results as much as possible. Client results are incredibly important. Through demonstrable success with clients you’ll have the opportunity to grow in your career. Good results also are critical for the motivation of teams themselves.
Barry Lustig is managing partner of Cormorant Group, a Tokyo-based business and creative strategy consultancy.
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