LDH, which stands for ‘Love + Dream + Happiness’, is no household name outside Japan, but co-founder and president Hiroyuki Igarashi thinks it can be. Igarashi, a former dancer who is more commonly known by his stage name Exile Hiro, plans to introduce the talent management and entertainment company to Cannes Lions delegates on the main stage of the Théâtre Lumière next week. It will mark the first time for a Japanese entertainment act to feature so prominently at the festival.
There are two main reasons that Hiro, the unassuming leader of dance act Exile and a producer, wants to appear before the Cannes crowd. One is that he sees potential to grow the business through the international export and marketing of Japanese entertainment. The other is that he wants to work with more companies to combine LDH’s entertainment properties with brands. He sees Cannes Lions as a good platform to convey what LDH stands for.
Like many Japanese companies, LDH has diverse interests. Its most popular act, J Soul Brothers, drew live audiences of more than 1.8 million last year. LDH has collaborated with Pharrell Williams and brands including Beats Electronics. In addition to music artists, it manages actors, models, entertainers and sports personalities, distributes films and operates dance schools, clothing labels and restaurants. The company branched out into the US in 2016 and Europe last year.
In an interview at LDH’s headquarters in Tokyo’s fashionable Nakameguro district, Hiro said LDH’s ethos is that everything from the signing of an artist to a brand collaboration should happen organically. While LDH has become a successful business in Japan, its founders were dancers—schoolfriends who wanted to do something they found interesting, rather than hard-headed businesspeople. Its senior executives are also artists, including Afrojack, a Dutch DJ who serves as CEO for Europe, and Verbal, a Japanese rapper who is also the company’s executive creative director.
Explaining why LDH is stepping up activities in Europe and the US, Hiro said the size of the Japanese market meant for a long time, artists did not feel the same pressure as those in countries like Korea to build an international following. “Now, times are changing,” he said, adding that with increased attention on Japan as the Olympics approach, “I think now is the best time to export our entertainment to the world”.
Given the Anglo-centric nature of entertainment in the US at least, it probably won’t be as easy as it sounds, but Verbal said the most important thing is to be flexible and open to partnerships. He said it will be necessary to localise content but in general he sees greater receptiveness to Japanese artists in the west, where it used to be “unilateral”—a case of western entertainment flowing into Japan but not vice versa. “We get inspired, and our rendition of influences in turn inspires,” he said.
As well as building the brands of artists abroad, LDH sees potential to use its artists and their audiences to build brands in Japan. The company operates a subscription-based fan club, which has more than a million members, and claims to have more than 80 million followers for the 150 people on its roster. To put Beats in front of female music fans aged 18 to 24, it teamed the brand with E-girls, an 11-member group. It has also produced co-branded merchandise combining its own properties with Adidas, Puma and Timberland.
In this respect, LDH competes with Dentsu, which plans to make entertainment content, and the inevitable brand tie-ups, a bigger part of its business. Since LDH is run by artists as opposed to advertising people, it positions itself as a company that is less-layered and closer to popular sentiment.
To illustrate this point, Verbal explained that Japan’s “urban” market is not the same as that in the US. In simple terms, hip-hop culture is mainstream in the US, but still very marginal in Japan. A brand that was able to achieve broad exposure by collaborating with a rapper like Lil Pump in the US would fail if it replicated that approach with a Japanese equivalent artist, because their audience would be a fraction of the size, he said. Rather, a certain sensitivity is needed to identify artists with some kind of an edge but who are not too gritty or niche.
As an example, Guess worked with LDH in an effort to rejuvenate its brand. In the US, it aligned with the rapper ASAP Rocky; in Japan, it paired with the decidedly softer Generations, a seven-member boy band. “Their look is street and their dance is street and they have a big following,” he said.
Campaign asked former Dentsu creative chief Akira Kagami for his thoughts on the role of a company such as LDH (as opposed to an agency) in the creative process. He said it was positive that LDH was trying to "change the system". But he noted that the planning function, which is most developed in the agency world, was an important consideration.
"Most brands need planning for the whole communication," he said, adding that he hoped LDH had good planners. He said using entertainment talent for branding was nothing new and that LDH would need to offer a distinct way of using and positioning artists, such as turning them into platforms or media in their own right.
For a company based on pop culture, LDH sees a lot of value in tradition. Asked what he thinks Brand Japan is and should be, Hiro pointed to the (arguably over-used) notion of ‘omotenashi’ (which translates roughly as selfless hospitality) and says it comes down to respect for other people, and for artisanship. “Concepts that are not translatable or that are unique to Japan are the mindset we should keep as Japanese people,” said Verbal.
Hiro added that Tokyo is no longer holds a monopoly on Japanese pop culture trends. “You don’t have to be in Tokyo to start a new thing,” he said. “Now that we’re paying attention to the outside world, this is a good chance to pay attention to local cities all over Japan as well.”
This article has been updated to include commentary from Akira Kagami.