Barry Lustig
Jan 20, 2017

Female leaders in Japan: A journalist in the realm of brands

For all the excitement around the potential for brands to be media companies in their own right, few journalists have made the transition to advertising agencies. We spoke to one who has.

Abi Sekimitsu
Abi Sekimitsu

For the second installment of our series on female leadership in marketing (see Dentsu’s Chieko Ohuchi shows what female leadership can be in Japan), Barry Lustig of Cormorant Group interviews Abi Sekimitsu, content director for Ogilvy & Mather Japan and managing director of Ogilvy PR Japan.

A former Reuters bureau chief, she joined Ogilvy in 2015. Such hires are still a rarity in advertising, but make a lot of sense for an industry that claims to be all about telling good stories. At the same time, there’s a big difference between reporting news and creating content for brands.

The interview will be published in two parts, the first exploring the world of journalism and how that experience translates to a commercial role, and the second looking more closely at life in agencies for women in Japan.

Why did you become a journalist?

By the time I was a sophomore or junior in high school, I had already decided that I wanted to go to the US and that I wanted to study journalism. I had the ambition to master English writing and journalism seemed like a good professional ambition to have if this was my goal.

What was your first experience running an editorial team?

It was the energy and commodities team in the Reuters Tokyo Bureau. It was great. It's such a niche sector and most of your sources are traders; oil traders; gold traders, platinum traders and so forth. It was a really good introduction to the industry and market reporting.

It's hard to write interesting stories about gasoline futures but you do your best. My favorite was Red Bean Futures from Hokkaido. We had to write a Red Bean Report every day. So, it was good. Certainly covering the energy market helped me when I worked for TEPCO [later in my career]. You never know when these things come to use!

Were there many female leaders at Reuters at the time?

I took over from a woman. But it was sort of like the “feminine hygiene beat,” not that energy is like feminine hygiene. But it was small, niche area where most of the traders were go-getter guys. You are calling them every day and asking them if they buy or sell cargo. The traders tended to talk to you more if you were a woman.

I was the editor from Japan, but the regional editor was this blonde British woman. She could walk into an OPEC meeting and everyone would be like “Oh, Jenny!” It was kind of funny. Now it’s passé. I don’t think it would happen today. This was the 1990s.

How did your management style evolve?

So this is where the Japanese-ness comes in. For an American I’m consensus driven and for a Japanese I'm aggressive. A Japanese person might say, “she’s a little bossy”. An American colleague might say, “She’s really consensus-driven, she listens to everybody and is open-minded.” So, it depends on who you listen to. Because all my bosses at Reuters were always non-Japanese, I never had an issue.

[The managers at Reuters] always wanted leaders who were hard on the Japanese that they thought Japanese people were too soft. This worked to my advantage as I was bicultural.

Why did Reuters managers think the Japanese are too soft?

Because we are. So this is one thing that all bosses that I have ever had—in journalism, software, the foreign reformers who were brought into TEPCO [after the 3/11 crisis] and now advertising industry bosses—they all hate this about Japanese corporate culture. They all hate this idea of Japanese exceptionalism.

Westerners cringe when you say, “oh, we do things in Japan in a certain way and if you do them in a different way it will never work….” And that sucking-in through the teeth. It drives people mad.

For example, editors would say to a journalist, “well, can you write a story in a new way or could you try to pursue a different angle?”  They would routinely hear, "Oh, no no no, everyone in Japan already knows this. It's not a story.” And the editor would say, “But our readers are not Japanese, could you just try?”

Or, if we had a question about energy policy, an editor would say, “why don’t we go to the Ministry of Labor and just ask them about X, Y or Z directly.” And the journalist would say, “Oh, no no no, you could never do that. There's protocol, you just can’t do that.”

In the end, many people don’t do anything because it has either been done before and didn’t work, not done because it won’t work or not allowed, and is not to be challenged.

Why is it important to be flexible in how you work?

If you keep saying that something can't be done, then you will be labeled lazy, and inactive. Western managers are looking for Japanese leaders who are at least willing to try to do something different… they just want to hear that you will try something.

In fact, that would be my advice to any Japanese person who wants to succeed in a Western company: just to stop saying, “hmmm, that's very difficult”. Then you will be a superstar. It's as easy as that in my experience.

How does running content in an agency compare to running content at a news agency?

I have never had to convince anyone that they need news. But I need to convince people that they need content.

When you are a journalist, when you are running a newsroom for a media company, you don’t have to sell. News is almost like a utility, like water, gas or air. Everyone who is in a company like Reuters believes that news is an essential thing. It's beyond selling, it’s almost like, we will do this because somebody must. So you don’t learn to sell.

One of David Ogilvy's most famous quotes is “sell or else.” I come from a culture where even if you can’t sell it, people don’t read the news are seen as idiots and will live their lives making bad decisions because they are not informed.

In my job, I have to really think about ways to convince people that the public needs to be informed about [company X’s] brand and therefore we need to make content about it.  And I also have to convince clients that they need to pay money to do this.

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

This article appeared first on Campaign Japan: ジャーナリズムからブランドの世界へ(前編)

Campaign Japan

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