Any advertising creative person will be likely to say that the desire to make great work is what drives them in their career. But in a big agency, how much of the work that lands on their plate is genuinely enjoyable?
Not very much, says Masashi Kawamura, chief creative officer of Whatever, a new company formed by the merger of Party New York and Taiwan and Dot by Dot, a Tokyo-based, creatively-oriented digital production house. Kawamura co-founded Party in 2011 as a place for high-level creative technologists looking for freedom that they couldn’t find elsewhere, and his philosophy of only pursuing work that truly interests him remains the same after having left.
Whatever, so-called to symbolise a free-wheeling style that combines advertising, production, design, technological innovation and brand consulting, aims to augment the qualities of Party and Dot by Dot by bringing the key functions of creative and production together.
Along with some colleagues including Qanta Shimizu (former CTO of Party and now CEO of Bassdrum, which describes itself as a collective of tech directors), Kawamura split from Party Japan several years ago while retaining the agency branding. He and Dot-by-Dot co-founder Yusuke Tominaga (now the CEO of Whatever) then began operating an informal resource-sharing system that essentially meant working for each other for free in order to collectively produce better work.
“There are only 24 hours in a day and there are only so many projects I’m going to launch in the years I have left, so I’d rather focus on doing really interesting work.”
“The good thing is we’re just amateur CEOs, no MBAs or whatnot, so it’s been a case of, let’s leave money aside and I work free for you and you work free for me and let’s see what happens,” Kawamura explains. “Our hope was that we’d have enough projects for our individual skillsets that it would equal out in the end.”
It did, and ultimately, they decided it would be best to create a single entity. “We realised we were aiming for the same sweet spot, which is the hybrid of what agencies are doing and what production is doing, bringing the thinking side and the making side completely together. The only way to create something that nobody’s seen before is for those teams to be much closer. We need to be really thinking and making together at the same time to achieve some of the weirdest work.”
Like Party and Dot by Dot previously, Whatever plans to work to a ratio whereby about 70% of work comes direct from brands, 15% comes from other agencies and production companies and 15% consists of self-initiated projects. The latter category includes seemingly random product-development work such as ‘Disco Dog’, a programmable LED dog jacket that Party developed in 2015. Such creative endeavours aren’t necessarily big revenue generators, but as well as being fun serve as learning experiences and promotional tools. ‘Disco Dog’ helped Party become involved in the development, alongside BBH, of Nike’s ‘Unlimited Stadium’, an LED running track, in Manila. “I guess they liked the quirkiness,” Kawamura says.
When working on a project with another agency, rather than just taking instructions, Whatever is set up to pitch them ideas and work on an equal footing, seeing the process as just another way to do something stimulating. An example from Party Taiwan from 2017 is 7-Eleven’s ‘Rhythm of Love’, which was managed by ADK and earned that agency a number of awards, with Party taking a small credit, which Kawamura says he was OK with.
Creatives do not necessarily make the best businesspeople, and asked whether making money is important, Kawamura says it’s necessary to keep the company afloat, but is not a motivating factor. “Obviously we need it to live, but there’s no meaning in working just for money,” agrees Tominaga.
Kawamura describes creative opportunities as a “currency” in themselves, and “priceless” if they are exciting enough. “Beyond a certain point, money becomes less of an importance,” he says. “There are only 24 hours in a day and there are only so many projects I’m going to launch in the years I have left, so I’d rather focus on doing really interesting work.”
Asked what has inspired them recently, and what they aspire to, Kawamura and Tominaga do not give the world of advertising much thought. Kawamura points to the artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater, an installation decades in the making, and the work of the architect Tsuyoshi Tane. “A lot of the work we do, we spend six months on it only for people to forget about it,” he reflects. “It’s amazing to create something that can be like a monument in the world.”
By contrast, Tominaga is enthused by LG’s roll-up OLED TV, which he sees as technological innovation that creates excitement while avoiding focusing on the technology itself.
Big budgets are less important than the readiness to do something original. Before accepting a client, the agency makes an assessment: “When they say they want something new, do they mean really ‘new’ new, or new in the sense of ‘P&G new’?” Kawamura says.
This ensures variety. Whatever is currently working on a very small project for Issey Miyake. At the other end of the spectrum is large-scale, soon-to-launch work for one of Japan's biggest drinks companies and a major airport in Southeast Asia, and more mainstream TV work. The company will look to form R&D partnerships in cases where the client “wants to do something innovative” but doesn’t know what. Kawamura also serves as creative consultant to Mercari, the online fleamarket. But an area he and Tominaga are particularly keen to develop is a profit-share model around product development.
One example of this is the Lyric Speaker, a consumer product that Dot by Dot developed as part of a joint-venture called Cotodama. The speakers retail for around $3,000, and Cotodama licences the software, which was developed by a team led by Saqoosha, now Whatever’s chief technology officer. “It’s making quite a good profit for us,” Kawamura says. An upcoming launch is an educational toy, toio, developed as a collaboration with Sony. Kawamura sees this sort of work as representing the biggest opportunity for Whatever. “Things we can continue to evolve with our partners, rather than commissioned single assignments,” he says.
Fundamental to Whatever’s existence is the ongoing development of a “creative commune”—a network of creative people with diverse skills it can draw on as needed. The model is based on Dot by Dot’s existing co-creator system, which offered infrastructural support to freelancers by signing them up, exposing them to opportunities and taking care of back office paperwork without confining them to the company as employees. “We want company walls to become more invisible,” Tominaga explains. It’s something traditional agencies have talked about for years but struggled to turn into reality, partly due to entrenched ways of working and partly due to a lack of empathy for freelance talent.
Kawamura says that so far, most relationships have come about through word-of-mouth recommendations, but that speculative portfolio submissions occasionally reveal some “amazing gems”. He agrees with the sentiment expressed by some that the most creative creatives are increasingly freelancers, even in Japan.
The best people “just want to do good work” but lack the necessary control in big agency structures, he says. He admits that in Japan, social norms still make life quite difficult for freelancers, and it’s naturally easier to remain in a big company, “do nothing and get big money”. Nonetheless, the younger generation is “realising ‘this might not be the future for me’” and starting to question how much longer established agency models will last.
What’s changed? “The model [the biggest agencies] built was so efficient in ripping off money from clients—the media buy and all these mystical teams and spending a lot of time on strategy before seeing the real work,” Kawamura says. “I’m not saying that’s bad; some people need that to convince their bosses to buy a certain idea. But the smarter clients are starting to skip certain paths and work quicker and more efficiently. [Agencies] just need to adapt to that.”
Which will be difficult as long as creative work is thrown in free on top of a media buy. “That needs to be flipped around. Respect to those who still do good work through that model, but it’s really not a good system.”
This article has been updated; corrects the spelling of the upcoming 'toio' project.