This is the first in a series of interviews looking at diverse and unconventional creative processes in Japan and their application to branding and marketing.
Dentsu is home to a vast array of divisions and teams, all offering services of different specialisation and, if we’re honest, quality. But there’s only one official ‘B-Team’. It’s not quite what it sounds.
Set up three years ago, it’s developed under the radar as the ‘B-Team’ of a think tank inside Dentsu—the Dentsu Innovation Institute. Though it’s led by two one-time copywriters, Hidetoshi Kuranari and Nadya Kirillova, who have worked together for 9 years, it has nothing to do with TV or indeed any other kind of advertising. In simple terms, Dentsu’s B-Team is a collaborative unit that helps clients to do interesting and useful things by drawing on a large, loosely structured internal and external network of experts in very specific fields. Most importantly, Kuranari and Kirillova work to combine insight from seemingly unrelated areas, which is after all a key tenet of creativity.
The B-Team has only been active in actual client work for about the past 12 months and has five full-time staff members. Those individuals draw on a further network of 40 people across Dentsu with ‘B-sides’—interests and connections to further networks in specific fields. Kuranari himself has strong links to the design sector through personal experience in product design. Whoever he decides to work with, he is adamant that he must be able to enjoy having coffee, tea or beer with them. “If someone has a strong ‘B-side’ but can’t blend in with the atmosphere, it’s not going to work,” Kirillova agrees. Finding the right people is “a lot tougher than it seems”.
Projects have involved developing a new kind of school designed to nurture students’ creativity; and currently, a new type of coffee. Those initiatives involved combining the brainpower of people ranging from a science fiction writer to a backcountry skier, a physician, a street culture expert, an architect and a peace activist.
It might seem odd that people who started out making TV commercials manage these projects. But Kirillova, a Russian who grew up in Japan and joined Dentsu as a graduate after a false start at ADK, says they are able to apply many of the same skills they acquired when they were regular creatives in a different context. She adds that creative teams in Japanese agencies like Dentsu often have more flexibility in their work than in Western agencies—although working styles are more constrained than they were in Japan’s boom years.
Kuranari says the B-Team’s work “follows the DNA of Dentsu directly” and is akin to the ad industry of the 70s and 80s in its approach to work. During that period, he says, work was “more like play”. Similarly, the B-Team escapes the office and conference rooms as much as possible, preferring to meet in public spaces or in the field where they are able to observe people and conduct firsthand research. Briefs and PowerPoint decks do not feature. It’s a far cry from a common scenario that one Japanese marketer recently complained to Campaign about, in which supposedly ‘creative’ presentations can easily involve an army of 30 people, most of whom do not speak.
Finding clients is not hard, given that Dentsu has between 3,000 to 6,000 on its books. Identifying what they want to achieve is more challenging. Kirillova says a big difference between standard Dentsu operations and the B-Team is that they usually interact directly with CEOs, engineers or people responsible for new business and innovation, rather than the “usual marketing guys”. This gives Dentsu access to the same sphere as the consultancies that are increasingly moving into the world of branding and marketing. But “they almost never know what they want to do,” she says. “They come to us because they believe in the way we work.”
Projects are established together with clients, sometimes through months of talking. It’s an informal, unhurried process. Work can take the form of chatting over an ice cream. “That’s a way of doing research,” Kirillova says. “Then after a few months we find out what the client had in mind. If a brief is really clear-cut, you can’t suggest anything else. Not having a brief gives us a much wider opportunity to find out what the actual problem is.” In all cases, it’s essential to expose the client to new industries and thought processes because “their thinking can be very narrow”.
Much of the past three years has been spent testing different processes just to get to this point. The B-Team should offer inspiration for the rest of Dentsu, whose creative heads acknowledge the need to become more diversified and less dependent on TV. But part of the B-Team’s advantage is that it’s small, and also under no pressure to win awards. Both Kuranari and Kirillova (who won a Titanium Lion at Cannes earlier in her career) think the industry puts too much emphasis on awards as a measure of success. Creative awards “don’t matter in Japan”, Kirillova says, claiming that in the end, the win had no impact on her career. Taking inspiration from good work is fine, says Kuranari, but simply learning from what the rest of the global industry is doing won’t lead to innovation. It’s not all about technology either.
“To solve today’s problems it’s not always necessary to use cutting edge technology or to have a super-crafted execution,” Kirillova says. “You can solve problems through simple ideas. For us it’s not about making a nice design or something to win an award; it’s more about the problem beneath that. A lot of creatives are afraid to let go, but they need to shift their thinking.”