David Blecken
Aug 24, 2016

Perspectives from ad:tech Tokyo International 2016

The myths of Japanese exceptionalism and Southeast Asian rewards, lack of flexibility and innovation, and thinking beyond advertising were among the themes discussed at Sophia University on 23 August. Here are some thoughts that stuck.

From left: Shintaro Tabata, Line; Timothy Schepis, I&S BBDO; Tsuyoshi Tomari, HIS
From left: Shintaro Tabata, Line; Timothy Schepis, I&S BBDO; Tsuyoshi Tomari, HIS

Japan is really not that different

In a panel comparing marketing in Japan to marketing in the rest of the world, Masayuki Hayashi, CEO of consultancy LMG, urged the audience to take claims of Japanese exceptionalism with a large grain of salt. A few years ago, naïve pundits were quick to dismiss the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter (Japan is now its second biggest market after the US) as gimmicks that Japan did not need, he noted. “Japanese people like to think they’re unique,” he said. “But don’t take it so seriously. It may take time, but in the end, they will accept something if it’s good.”

Still, it could be more flexible

In the same session, Xiqiao Liu, marketing director for Johnson & Johnson in Japan, complained that people are often too process-driven and respectful of rules, which prevents them from thinking on their feet. To illustrate her point, she gave the example of being denied an extra serving of soup at a ramen restaurant, despite offering to pay for it. “People just follow the rules, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “I observe this kind of thing a lot in business. The team just keeps doing the same thing. I ask why, and they say it’s the process. Then I look into it and find it’s not needed. So you should always ask why, and often you will find a much easier way of moving things forward.”

Don’t expect any more real innovation in ad tech

Discussing the future of advertising technology, Toru Takata, SVP of media and marketing at Yahoo Japan, said people should focus on understanding and optimising what already exists—not chasing after apparently new technology. “There’s not that much innovation out there,” he said. “The important thing is for marketers to dig into it and work out how to use it for your business. [If they can’t understand it themselves], the most important thing is to hire someone who can.”

That person also needs to be taught the importance of KPIs from the start, said Thomas Wrobel, global head of performance marketing at Trivago. “No one knows what KPI to look at. You really have to train them and don’t just switch to the KPI that looks best.” He added that ad tech vendors need to find a common language and “learn to speak to each other”.

Pokemon Go’s success has little to do with technology

In a session looking at marketing ideas for startups, Antti Sonninen, CEO of Slush Asia, said that in the end, Pokemon Go’s appeal was all down to a well-loved brand offering a new experience, not augmented reality technology itself. But in a lesson for all brands, he said making it successful in the US first helped validate it for Japanese consumers. “Making something successful outside Japan and bringing it back to impress Japanese people can work well,” he said.

At the same time, a message from those behind a product or service helps strengthen credibility: to launch Pokemon Go in Japan, the leaders of Niantic and Pokemon delivered a rather stiff video message. “Consumers don’t think just about the technology or the product,” explained Shigeru Ota, founder and CEO of Bilcom. “They want to see the face of the person who developed the product.”

Align with the biggest if you want to be taken seriously

In the same panel, Satoshi Amanuma, co-founder and CEO of airCloset, an online fashion rental service, said creating alliances with the top companies in a given field is extremely important in building a startup’s brand in Japan. For that reason, he said, he had dismissed ideas of collaborating with a number of small ‘select shops’ and instead aligned with Beams, one of the country’s most prominent fashion retailers. “You need to go with the bigger one first” in order to be remembered by consumers, he said.

Southeast Asia is not as big as you think

In a discussion on how to market successfully in Southeast Asia, Dmitry Levit, the Singapore-based director of Digital Media Partners Investments, said it would be foolish to expect short-term gains there. Numbers from the region should not be trusted, he said. When it comes to anything technology-related, weak infrastructure in most markets is a problem that will not be solved any time soon; wealth is also very concentrated and most countries are still far from having a sizeable middle class. “I often have a mildly depressing effect on people,” he said. “But Southeast Asia will be a long-term play. It will not replicate China. One should think in terms of decades, not quarters.”

Brands are using Line all wrong

In one of the final sessions of the day, which touched among other things on a hotel staffed by robots, Shintaro Tabata, head of corporate sales at Line, expressed frustration that marketers “are always talking about how to advertise their product” on the platform. “They should think ‘what’ or ‘why’—that’s more important,” he said.

To highlight correct usage, he gave the examples of Domino’s, which lets people order pizza via Line, or the logistics company Kuroneko Yamato, which uses Line to give customers notifications. “Apps like this can transform companies into 21st century companies,” he said. “I’d like to ask senior-level management, what is your company’s mission? Line can go beyond advertising or marketing strategy.”

Campaign Japan

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