Barry Lustig
Jan 25, 2017

Female leaders in Japan: A journalist in the realm of brands (part two)

Oglivy Japan’s head of content discusses how brands can win people over by removing their ‘commercial’ hat, and why Japanese women often hold themselves back from career success.

Abi Sekimitsu
Abi Sekimitsu

The second part of our interview by Barry Lustig of Cormorant Group with Abi Sekimitsu, content director at Ogilvy & Mather Japan and managing director of Ogilvy PR Japan, focuses on two areas: what content should be, and the position of women in Japan’s workplace. In both cases, she explains why confidence and self-belief are essential. This interview is part of a series on female leadership in Japanese marketing.

Why is it so important for agencies and clients to focus on content?

With the advent of social media, and the declining influence of TV and print, consumers are not looking for advertising; they are looking for experience.

They want to be informed about a brand and its products by discovering it in their natural habitat, which is probably online or word-of-mouth. And look to read or experience it and have their own reaction to it. Maybe share it with friends and get a third opinion. And then they make a purchasing decision. That's content.

Content has to sit in a habitat that is different to a banner or a TV commercial. It has to sit within an editorial page or sit within a social media platform waiting to be discovered naturally and ready to give authentic information about what you get from that brand: values, associations, information that the consumer is going to say: Oh, yeah, I really agree with these values. I'd really like to make these associations. Or this information is valuable to me.

There are limitations to advertising and PR campaigns. There has to be something that's about the brand experience and that's content.

How has working in an agency shaped your view on content?

I’m surrounded by advertising and PR. It has been a positive and necessary loss of innocence because it's all commercial. Content is also commercial but it can’t be seen that way.

Content has to be something a brand pays for but it can’t look like it pays for it. So it's like a three-way mirror. I know if brand X has an ad campaign and a press release and I was developing a campaign around the same topic, I know what it shouldn’t look like.

As a woman in a leadership position, what do you see as the biggest challenges for female leaders in Japan?

I may be unpopular saying this, but the biggest barrier is themselves within the workplace. I say this having worked at a very conservative Japanese company, Tepco. I certainly don’t think there are workplace issues for women working at a multinationals and having worked at three multinationals.

What are key barriers that keep many women from advancing in the workplace?

They are afraid to take risks. I have worked with women of many nationalities and I'd say that Japanese women are on the risk-averse side of things. They have been ingrained perhaps to have a low opinion of themselves and their abilities and having a high opinion of yourself and your abilities is seen as unfeminine. And therefore unlikeable. If you are going to raise your hand and say, hey, try me out for this promotion, that’s a risk. If you don’t get it, then you'll be seen as the loud mouth who tried for the promotion who didn’t even get it whereas guys are better able to bounce back.

I think women are resilient. But they are too self-conscious. So yeah, they don’t get promoted because they don’t go for promotions. They don’t go for promotions because they are not confident. They are not confident because they feel that if they are too confident they won’t be likeable. And they want to be likeable because at the end of the day that's what a woman is supposed to be in Japan. You don’t want to be a disagreeable woman. That’s not a woman.

How can women overcome sexual harassment?

Again, this is the likeability thing. When outrageous things (by Western standards) are being said to you in the workplace or at the bar with your workmates, if you raise a stink about it, you are not likeable. You are a thorny woman who can’t take a joke. It's expected of you to just laugh it off, or sort of say, "what are you saying shacho, oh, come on!"

They are not expected to say, ‘you would never believe what shacho said to me’. They are not confident that they will get the backing of HR. And you might have a sexist person in HR who might harass you and say, “how could you say that about a superior?” Nobody can really help them.

All the information is there. Everyone knows what sexual harassment is. There are laws. There are examples of what constitutes sexual harassment. Women can educate themselves on what sexual harassment is and recognise it and escalate it when it happens. If they don’t do it, it's not excusable. Especially women who work for multinationals, and even large domestic companies.

It is a different ballgame for women in small and medium sized enterprises. They may not have a full HR practice, or adequate governance. If you are a woman and someone ways something to you, it's just the shacho and you.

Then, that’s a problem and women need support. If you work in a listed company, a multinational or a fairly open company then all the information is there. And if you say, ‘I didn’t get promoted because of sexual harassment’ and get depressed because of sexual harassment, I don’t think that's an excuse. Maybe in 1985 but not now. Everyone knows what it is.

What can companies do cultivate female leaders?

We tend to hire people who remind us of a young us or we tend to hire people we know we will get along with. If you do this, your company will not grow because you will all be thinking about things in the same way and you are not going to have disruptive innovation.

You have to think of ways to break into [other] industries if you are a small company. You have to think of ways to combat intruders who are coming into your industry if you are a market leader.

If you all are Japanese men in your 50s and 60s of a certain background, you are not going to come up with that new idea. It's not just women, you need people from all different backgrounds from all different parts of the world.

What advice would you give to an aspiring female leader at an agency?

Don’t expect process. The more fluidly you are able to work the more successful you can be. So If you are a process-oriented person who is really uncomfortable if there isn’t a process or are not shown a process then I would say that agency life not for you. That goes for men too.

What advice would you give to male colleagues on how best to supervise and support women in the workplace?

They should fix their home lives first. If they are not respecting and supporting women at home, it will show. Women will know. And you cannot lead them, they will not follow you. You don’t need to have a huge psycho-session. But think about how many times you do the dishes. It sounds dumb. But it starts at home.

Barry Lustig is managing partner of Cormorant Group, a Tokyo-based business and HR strategy consultancy.


Campaign Japan

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