Advertising agency executives talk at length about the qualities young people should have to succeed in an industry that people at all levels are struggling to keep up with. Less is heard from the young people themselves. Yet their voices are arguably more important. Understanding their motivations and what they expect from employers is essential if those companies are to continue to attract, and especially hold onto, the people they need.
With the recruiting season in full swing in Japan, Campaign spoke to three promising prospective new entrants to the industry about their ambitions, expectations and apprehensions. Aged 22, the three interviewees all attended or are currently attending Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University, but come from diverse backgrounds and are at different stages on the path to employment.
Kohei Kanayasu is about to join Ogilvy & Mather Japan as a junior consultant, having eschewed the traditional graduate training schemes in favour of extensive networking, internships and freelance work. As well as a stint at Oxford, He has notched up around 15 work experience stints over the last three years at organisations ranging from Greek cosmetics brand Apivita to the British Embassy, Edelman and Ogilvy.
Marin Nagano is set to join Hakuhodo DY Digital this year, having gone through the formal graduate recruitment process. Although she took a more traditional route, she also spent time studying in the UK, and completed internships at Gaiax, a Japanese mobile gaming startup, and McCann Worldgroup.
Ching Wang still has a year of study ahead of her and is now in the process of applying for work to start upon graduation. Originally from Taiwan, she has spent her entire degree in Japan and intends to develop her career in the country, which she says she feels at home in and offers more opportunities than Taiwan. She has explored a variety of companies including brands, management consulting firms and agencies as she tries to determine the best fit for her.
Although advertising in the traditional sense has lost much of its relevance, the three are optimistic that they can play a part in helping the industry enter a new phase of more consumer-oriented, less bothersome communications. They are hesitant to describe the industry as “cool”, but do see it as exciting and offering variety.
Kanayasu does not make a strong distinction between advertising and PR and is primarily motivated by being able to “engineer influence”. He wants to be a “go-to guy” for foreign brands entering Japan. Nagano is attracted by the potential to make a mark as an individual as well as working as part of a team. She is interested in working abroad and in taking the best qualities of Japan to other countries. Wang likes the visual and creative aspects of advertising and also the scope for innovation, even though she feels frustrated by the lack of innovation present in much of the advertising she encounters in daily life.
Expectations and turn-offs
The advertising industry, which always bills itself as one of the most exciting, has a lot to live up to. The new joiners are not under the illusion that they are in for 100% pure fun, but they do expect what they do to be meaningful and stimulating: repetitive tasks that do not involve brainpower—which were apparently a factor in the notorious Dentsu overwork case—would be a major turn-off.
“It’s all about the steepness of the learning curve,” Kanayasu says. “At the end of the day I want to learn new things. This is something I’ve focused on in all my jobs so far, so if I don’t learn anything, that job is dead to me.”
He adds that an environment that fosters open communication is essential. As obvious as this sounds, Ogilvy Japan had barricades between the desks until former chief creative officer Ajab Samrai demolished them. “A company where everyone is in a cubicle doesn't work. You need an atmosphere where you’re welcome to talk to each other. If a company doesn’t have that, it hinders your job and its function as an ad agency.”
Flexibility and variety are important too. Nagano says she is attracted to the possibility of working on accounts if she expresses a strong interest in the company or sector. “If there’s something you love, people might ask you to join their team. I think that environment is important,” she says. On a more basic level, flexibility also means not having to be in the office, or at least at the same desk, all the time. “It’s not so much whether I will want to work from home, but having the option to is important,” Kanayasu says.
Wang adds that she hopes to see more freedom to express opinion in the workplace, even if it means disagreeing with the boss. She sees the fear of speaking out as something that contributes to inefficiency at work.
As you might expect, the three do not envisage spending their lives at one company. Wang says she might be more open to that if joining an actual brand, but not at an agency. For her, ad agency life seems fun “because you can always connect with other companies. I would want to get experience at different places—agencies and companies they collaborate with. But companies like Nissan have shaped career paths and it takes time for you to get up there, so it’s kind of a waste if you like the company but don’t stay there for a long time”.
Nagano thinks moving to different companies can be stimulating and a source of knowledge. For her, employee loyalty has its merits too, “but in the current age it’s also nice to have trial and error”. “I have plans that I want to execute and in order to achieve that goal I don’t think staying at one company would make much sense,” Kanayasu adds.
Overwork, socialising, equal opportunities
It’s impossible to have a conversation with new entrants to advertising without discussing the 2015 suicide of a young Dentsu employee. It appears to serve as a cautionary tale rather than a deterrent, and has perhaps made young people more realistic about the industry they are entering. “That incident gave the industry a very bad name,” observes Kanayasu.
“It was serious but it didn’t stop me from taking ad agency interviews because what I experienced in my internships was fun,” Nagano says. “I know the business can be hard but if it’s too hard I can give up and move on.”
Kanayasu says overtime and overwork have become bigger considerations for would-be entrants to advertising. “It seems like [agencies] are working to improve the situation, but whether enough effort is being made is a different matter… I’m not afraid to say if something is too much. That comes from the priority of having time outside of work to do what I want and to recharge my batteries.”
Wang has a healthy philosophy that is nonetheless at odds with the traditional corporate environment. She believes in collaboration and teamwork, but thinks employers still put too much emphasis on the amount of time spent in the workplace. “If you finish your work, just leave. It’s not about other people; it’s about yourself.”
Wanting time to sleep and pursue personal interests is hardly unreasonable, and in the end results in more valuable employees. But what about social connections in the workplace? A 2017 survey by the Japan Productivity Center suggested the culture of after-work bonding is slowly dying, with more than 30% of new employees saying they did not want to socialise with colleagues after hours. None of the three Campaign interviewed are against work-related socialising, but for them it must be voluntary, not enforced. Heavy drinking should also not be obligatory. “It gives you a chance to know people better but I don’t get sometimes why people push their own limits to the extent that they can’t hold it,” Wang says.
A bigger concern is the industry’s (especially in Japan) alarmingly low rate of female leadership. “It bothers me a little,” Nagano admits, and notes that her interviewers have all been male. “Because the ad industry keeps changing, it seems hard to come back [after taking time off to have children]. It’s really a choice between career and personal life, but in future I hope it will get better. I think I’ll like it so would love to continue in it.” She thinks it’s important for a few companies to be seen to support working mothers and act as role models for change. Wang suggests childcare facilities at work would make a big difference.
How advertising, and graduates, can be more attractive
It’s no secret that advertising faces much stiffer competition than it once did for the brightest young talent. Wang says a lot of graduates from her department—international liberal studies—are drawn to Accenture, even if Accenture is somewhat vague at job fairs about its proposition and culture. Higher salaries are likely to be a factor, of course, but Kanayasu thinks advertising could also be clearer about what the work involves. “I think the diversity of the work isn’t well recognised,” he says. “If they could sell that, a lot of people would see it as a fun working environment.”
Wang thinks putting emphasis on advertising’s relationship with technology could also help win over students from economics and science backgrounds, who typically look at other industries. But she feels the recruiting process, with its obligatory black suits and white shirts, is too “stiff” and makes it difficult to express personal qualities. She appreciates companies that explicitly ask candidates to forego the suit. In addition, the pressure to land a job in a short timeframe makes it difficult to fully appraise a company before applying to it.
“The job hunting scheme feels like a bit of a show,” Kanayasu says. “You have to pretend to be a perfect version of yourself. One reason I didn’t subscribe to it and took the path I did is that I wanted it to be a skill-based thing.”
He advises student job seekers to use platforms like LinkedIn, or at least network aggressively, and most of all think carefully about what they can get out of their internships and part-time jobs. “I knew I had to make money, but I thought, let’s make money doing something I can learn from,” he says. “At university you can change jobs every three to six months. Then you can sell that experience. It’s an investment.”