David Blecken
Jan 13, 2017

How Japanese advertising can become a better place to work

We assembled a group of free thinkers from across advertising and asked them to share their views on a topic that has loomed over the industry since October.

How Japanese advertising can become a better place to work

In late December 2016, Campaign Japan and Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo hosted a non-commercial, informal discussion involving 10 professionals from across the industry with widely varying experience and seniority. The aim was to exchange personal accounts of working in Japanese advertising and construct ideas as to how the sector can become more balanced and sustainable for the people who work in it.

In order to ensure the discussion was as candid as possible, Campaign agreed not to publish the names or companies of the participants. The group was made up of Japanese nationals, foreign expats working in Japan, and bicultural individuals with experience working in both Japanese and international environments.

Companies represented through the participants’ collective experience included two of Japan’s largest domestic advertising agencies, international agencies, an independent domestic agency, a major global tech company, an international production company, and industry-specific human resources consultants.

The discussion was held at a space in Tokyo managed by Wieden + Kennedy, which is experimenting with more flexible working styles across its offices globally. Here is a summary of the key takeaways from the evening.

Many account executives are desperate to move to the client side. Especially once they hit 35, many come to feel their career in agencies is unsustainable due to their unrelenting working conditions and slow pace of progress. Client marketing roles are the most obvious transition due to the lack of a freelance market for advertising professionals in Japan—but those roles are not easy to obtain. The desire to move is much less pronounced among creatives, and those creatives who do make the jump often become bored. Particularly for young creatives looking to build a name for themselves, agencies are likely to offer much more robust and varied career development.

Unsophisticated marketers and unqualified leaders are a major reason for the problem of overwork. One major multinational’s marketing department in Tokyo was likened to “a chicken factory full of failed salesmen”. The fact is that truly skilled client marketers are in short supply in Japan. If the clients don’t understand their jobs properly, their incompetence is likely to become a problem for agencies to untangle and a drag on efficiency. Ex-agency staff can make for the worst clients: they are under pressure to appear expert in their work when in reality they are far from it. Indeed, those in managerial positions at agencies have often had little managerial training and are unwilling to enlist consultants to help streamline their processes, which adds to the problem for their subordinates. A higher ratio of female leadership would likely bring more empathy to advertising, especially if those leaders have children. The simple fact is that family gives a strong reason for people to work smarter, and respected individuals can make a big difference by setting an example as to how others should work.

A new way of billing would help. Leaders need to set an example by working intelligently rather than simply working long, and stand up to clients when they demand too much. In short, agencies need to make clients aware of what goes into their work. This will help agencies to guard against being exploited and develop a credible means of charging for ideas and labour, not just for media. ‘Always on’ has become a buzzword in marketing in recent years, but it should not apply to individuals: staff need to feel there is an end in sight to the projects they work on and should have set periods of the day and week when they can truly switch off, otherwise they will eventually burn out. That could mean no emails or phone calls after a certain time of day as a rule that clients must respect.

People need help choosing the right jobs. Many people who enter advertising don’t have a clear idea of what they want to do within the sector. This means they are often shunted into areas they have no interest in and can become trapped. After a time, fear of losing status through quitting becomes a bigger issue than fear of losing income. But lack of passion means lack of productivity. To counteract this state of affairs, agencies should “show love for their people” and spend time understanding their employees’ specific strengths and building them.

Understand what really motivates people. Small things can often make a big difference to people’s well-being and capacity at work. It’s not all about money. In one example (albeit not from an agency), recognition of outstanding work in the form of receiving name tags brought staff disproportionate happiness. As improbable as that sounds, it’s not hard to see that sincere appreciation and praise for a job well done can go a very long way. So does a sense of freedom, both in terms of the work that one takes on and the way it’s carried out—something independent agencies tend to have much more of than large agencies. In the end, it’s not necessarily about cutting the hours that people work, but giving people the flexibility to manage their own time and do what they find fulfilling. 

None of these improvements will happen unless they are written in to decision makers’ job descriptions. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that structural change has to start at the top, flow down to mid-level management and be rigorously enforced. Nothing will change unless implementing and maintaining good working conditions is a KPI that managers are evaluated against, and punished for not delivering on.

Clearly, there is no easy solution to this issue. But talking about things openly is a good place to start. Influential companies also need to lead by example. Dentsu recently announced plans to implement a number of changes with a view to distributing work more evenly and listening more closely to feedback from staff at all levels. There is cause for optimism that if followed through under the company’s new leadership, these measures could spark industry-wide improvement.

See all our coverage of the Dentsu overtime controversy


Campaign Japan

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