David Blecken
Apr 17, 2017

Hakuhodo hires Yang Yeo in bid to become a more serious player in Asia

The former W+K ECD and Kentaro Kimura are charged with upping the agency's game as co-chief creative officers.

Kentaro Kimura, Yang Yeo and their clones enjoy hanami in a promotional image from Hakuhodo.
Kentaro Kimura, Yang Yeo and their clones enjoy hanami in a promotional image from Hakuhodo.

Hakuhodo has appointed Yang Yeo as its co-chief creative officer for Asia-Pacific, a newly created role. Yeo, the former ECD of Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai (W+K), will work alongside Kentaro Kimura, a long-term Hakuhodo member who has up to now served as co-CEO and ECD of Hakuhodo Kettle.

Yeo led W+K’s creative output in China from 2014. He has been based in Shanghai since 2006, but the new role sees him move home to Singapore. Kimura will remain in Tokyo. According to Hakuhodo, the pair will work to raise staff motivation and skills and build a stronger reputation to attract new business. Their work will encompass planning, activation and PR as well as more traditional regional creative duties.

The move from one of the world’s most creatively-driven agencies to Hakuhodo is likely to raise some eyebrows. In an interview in Tokyo, Yeo said his decision was in part motivated by his friendship with Kimura, who he has known for eight years, but also by the level of Hakuhodo's ambition.

Although large Japanese agencies, rightly or wrongly, still have a very ‘corporate’ image, Yeo said he does not feel apprehensive. He said candid conversations with Masaru Kitakaze, Hakuhodo’s global chief creative officer, reassured him that the agency was a place “I can be comfortable being myself”. He said Kitakaze told him not to fear failure “as long as you keep moving forward”.

The prospect of becoming part of a Japanese corporate system “doesn’t disturb me at all,” he said. “I plan to embrace it and don’t intend to apply global ways of doing things in this company nor fall into the traditional way of doing things … It doesn’t have to be a Japanese way or a Western way; more a ‘Hakuhodo’ way.” 

Yeo said Hakuhodo’s aim is to be “an internationally renowned company that happens to have its headquarters in Japan”, rather than simply a ‘Japanese’ agency. Kitakaze acknowledged that attempting to manage Asia-Pacific from Tokyo headquarters is not an effective structure. “We want to be out there and roll up our sleeves with the team in the marketplace,” Yeo said.

The bulk of Hakuhodo’s clients in Asia are Japanese, but the agency is looking to attract a broader range. That means raising visibility, which Yeo’s appointment is certainly likely to contribute to. But Kimura admitted there is “a lot of work we have to do” to improve the standard of offices across the region. Indonesia, led by Irfan Ramli, is relatively strong, he said. But offices in a number of other key markets do not appear to be at that stage yet. "There are opportunities to raise the business, especially in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore or India," Kimura said. "We hope to elevate all our offices in the region to that level and beyond."

Neither of the chief creative officers claims to have figured out the challenge. But rather than simply hiring people, Yeo said he plans to look inside first. “The talent we have hasn’t been unearthed,” he said. “We are going to look at how we can groom them and get them to do things they are best at … We want people to be part of culture and affect culture, not advertising.”

That last point is important. Yeo thinks the term “creative work” has been applied too loosely in the industry. He is adamant that Hakuhodo’s work needs to speak to “real people, not through trickery and advertising, not just through communication”.

Of course, it’s fashionable for advertising agencies to present themselves as doing everything but advertising, when in reality TV campaigns do still account for the bulk of their revenue. But Kimura says ‘market design’ is an important part of Hakuhodo’s philosophy. This means working to “give people better lifestyles that eventually contribute to clients”, Kimura said.

He gave the example of a project for an automotive client that focused on creating infrastructure and building a community before trying to sell products. In Japan, Hakuhodo is also involved in product design, both proactively and for clients. Activities like this could help give the company an edge in Asia. How easy it will be to extend them under the new structure remains to be seen.

“I don't think Japan is so different to other Asian countries,” Kimura said. “But each country has its uniqueness … we have to work together more with Asian talent and that’s the reason for this dual leadership.”

Major international creative hires by Hakuhodo's domestic rivals include that of Rob Sherlock by ADK in 2014, and Ted Lim by Dentsu in 2013.

Campaign Japan

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