Minnie Wang
Oct 12, 2023

Grey Tokyo's Yukiko Ochiai on celebrating the agency's 60th anniversary, empowering women and more

On the occasion of Grey Tokyo’s 60th anniversary, president and CEO Yukiko Ochiai shares her inspirational career stories, thoughts on female empowerment across Japan's ad landscape, her vision for the future, and more.

Grey Tokyo's Yukiko Ochiai on celebrating the agency's 60th anniversary, empowering women and more

Sixty years ago, on October 12, 1963, Grey Advertising started its joint venture with Daiko Advertising in Japan, before eventually acquiring the firm in 1999. With the restructuring and rebranding, the company was renamed Grey Global Group, and officially became a part of WPP in 2005, going on to run several offices including their head office in Tokyo.

Today, as the brand marks 60 years in the country, Grey Tokyo's president and CEO Yukiko Ochiai is a mark of the change the company has undergone. The only female Japan Advertising Agency Association (JAAA) board member, Ochiai joined the agency in 2011 as group account director, before she was promoted to chief operating officer in 2015, and president and CEO in 2018.

Ochiai spent her childhood and high school years in the US, before returning to Japan to attend Hitotsubashi University. She began her early career as a sports broadcast director at Fuji Television producing sports programmes, including news and Olympic live broadcasts. Next, she moved to Beacon Communications and led P&G's hair care business, as well as Japanese beauty care accounts including the likes of SK-II. 

Since becoming president and CEO of Grey Tokyo, the agency has won several accolades under Ochiai's oversight, including gold at Campaign’s Agency of the Year awards as Japan Creative Agency of the Year in 2021 and silver in 2020 and 2022

At Spikes Asia 2022, Grey Tokyo won Japan Agency of the Year, a Glass Spike and a Grand Prix in the Social & Influencer category for the #PrideHair (Pantene/P&G) campaign and a Grand Prix for the VS Series (SK-II) in the Media category, together with Mediacom Singapore. 

In an exclusive interview with Campaign to mark the anniversary of Grey Tokyo, Ochiai shares her career path from her childhood curiosity for creativity to her role as chief executive officer implementing new rules about work flexibility for working mothers in a Japanese advertising agency. She also walks through her proudest works at Grey over the years, including through the pandemic, and why she feels it's important for females in the workforce to “take the initiative and chart your own course to success."

Yukiko, you started as a sports broadcast director and later moved to Beacon Communications. How and why did you enter the advertising industry, and what drove you to lead an agency?

Since I was a young girl, I have always been fascinated by creativity and have held the utmost respect for those who can create amazing movies, visuals, and sounds. I began my career in TV due to my passion for creativity. Eventually, I transitioned to the advertising industry because I realised it was the field where creativity faced its greatest challenges and [it] required the best talent. Throughout my years in this industry, I've had the pleasure of working with fantastic talent. While my role has evolved into more of a managerial one, I still feel excitement when creatives share their first offline edit with me. My genuine love and respect for our work have driven me to continue, ultimately leading me to a leadership position.

As one of the very few female CEOs in the Japanese advertising industry, you've been with Grey Tokyo since 2011, and now serve as its president and CEO. Have you encountered any significant challenges as a female executive in your career? How did you address these?

Throughout my advertising career, I've been fortunate not to personally experience difficulties or challenges solely because of my gender. Grey has historically maintained an inclusive culture, and leaders like Nirvik Singh (Global COO & president international for Europe, Africa, Middle East, Asia Pacific & Latam) have consistently empowered and supported my decision-making. I've also observed many great female leaders from within our region. Currently for example, we have female CEOs in India, Thailand, China, Malaysia & Singapore and our Global CEO, Laura Maness, serves as an inspiration for female leadership. However, I'm aware that my experience is uncommon in Japan, where the female ratio in the advertising industry remains low. As the only female board member of the Japan Advertising Agency Association (JAAA), I've been privileged to guide industry leaders and initiate workshops for JAAA and WPP agencies in Japan.

Yukiko Ochiai speaking at a WPP event on International Women’s Day in 2023

What initiatives have you undertaken to support female creatives within your agency, and female professionals in the marcomms community?

Japan places high expectations on mothers, which has led to significant pressure on working moms to balance their careers and family life. Understanding these struggles as a working mom myself, I've worked to expand work flexibility at Grey Tokyo to allow everyone to find the best work-life balance. Grey Tokyo has implemented over 30 new rules regarding work flexibility, resulting in one of the highest female-employee ratios and female-leadership ratios in the Japanese advertising industry.

Over your years at Grey, what work are you most proud of as a leader?

I take pride in the numerous projects we've undertaken over the years, making it challenging to choose just one. However, a few standout campaigns come to mind. I adore the campaign Hankograph produced for WildAid Japan about Ivory poaching, as it sheds light on the Japan-specific issue of using ivory for signature stamps (Hanko) and exposes the cruelty of ivory poaching through a unique animation created by these stamps. Another campaign, #PrideHair, produced for Pantene, raises awareness of the struggles faced by LGBTQ+ former job hunters who felt compelled to conceal their true selves. Finally, the Save Your Hope campaign for Moderna, launched this year, highlights the things we've had to sacrifice during Covid-19 and how to recapture these lost moments.

The #Pridehair team: Front row L-R: Rui, Jun, Masa, Sayaka, Yoichi, Back row L-R: Shota, Katsuhiro, Takuyta, Kei

Which project has presented the greatest challenge for you and your team so far?

Leading an agency during the pandemic was perhaps the most challenging experience of my career. Balancing the imperative of everyone's safety with the pursuit of exceptional work was exceedingly difficult. However, in retrospect, this period yielded some of our best work. For instance, the Tokyo Olympics campaign for SK-II gained depth, profundity, and meaning by incorporating the world's difficulties into the campaign. It also compelled us to discover new, effective, and efficient ways of working. While it was undeniably tough, it proved to be the most productive and rewarding two years of my career.

What do you perceive as the most challenging issues facing the Japanese advertising market today?

Japan has traditionally been a homogeneous society, making it relatively easier to capture a large audience compared to other countries. A single great TV advertisement was often sufficient to make a significant impact. However, with the rise of digital technology, society has become more fragmented, making it increasingly challenging to reach and engage the audience. Consequently, developing powerful ideas that can be executed through various channels and touchpoints has become more crucial and effective.

What key trends will you continue to monitor in Japan and across the APAC markets?

I am enthusiastic about the trend of utilising nostalgia in marketing. Reviving packaging, logos, hit songs, and visual cues from past decades, such as the 1970s and 1980s, is gaining traction in Japan and is likely to remain an effective creative strategy. Nostalgia evokes a sense of the "good old days" even for those who weren't alive at the time, and it can appeal to both Gen Z and Baby Boomers simultaneously.

Another intriguing trend is the increasing focus on male beauty in Japan. Men are progressively using beauty products like skincare lotions, makeup foundations, and hair removal lasers. This shift signifies a changing perception of traditional masculinity in Japan and greater freedom for men to define their identity.

Throughout Grey Tokyo's 60-year history, do you have any favourite or historically significant works that you admire? 

One campaign I hold dear is the 2002 launch of P&G's Bold detergent. Over 20 years ago, when cleaning product advertisements predominantly featured female celebrities in housewife roles, our campaign featured only men, dramatising their laundry experience with Bold. This was a groundbreaking move in those times and helped challenge the perception that only women should take responsibility for household chores. In 2023, most detergent advertisements feature men doing laundry, and I'm proud and thankful to both the client and my team for pioneering this innovative step. Such work paves the way for campaigns promoting greater equality in the home.

Celebrating Grey's anniversary, what is your vision for the upcoming years, especially given the emergence of AI, NFTs, and other technological factors impacting the advertising industry?

The core mission of Grey Tokyo remains unchanged since its inception: To create famously effective work that addresses business challenges through innovative creativity. My priority remains building a robust agency with exceptional talent capable of generating and developing great ideas. However, our world has grown more complex and multi-faceted, necessitating a range of capabilities and specialists to execute these ideas. It's vital for Grey Tokyo to collaborate flexibly and strategically with the diverse capabilities within WPP Japan. We've already begun forming specialised WPP teams for key clients, and I aspire to expand this collaboration further.

As a senior executive in the industry, what advice do you have for young female professionals in Adland today?

The primary challenge to female success in Japan's Adland is the scarcity of females in leadership roles. Consequently, finding strong female role models can be challenging. I recommend being resilient and creative, forging your unique path to leadership. Japan is a nation known for slow change, so waiting for someone to elevate you might not be the best strategy. Instead, take the initiative and chart your own course to success.

Grey Tokyo Team at 50th anniversary


Campaign Asia

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