Dentsu Inc’s detractors are fond of stating that the company is too TV-centric in an age where everything is supposed to be digital. It’s true that the company’s dominance in Japanese advertising is built on TV. But it is the development of areas such as original content that sets the company apart from most other advertising agencies, not just in Japan, but globally.
The January promotion of Keiichi Yoshizaki as one of 35 new executive officers signals the importance of content for the future of Dentsu’s business. As well as an executive officer, Yoshizaki’s business card describes him rather vaguely as a “prime executive professional”. But his actual job is running Dentsu’s Content Business Design Center (CBDC), which is ostensibly focused not on client services but on creating new business opportunities that will generate revenue independently, but also have the potential to benefit clients.
Dentsu was unable to disclose how much it has invested in original content and partnerships since the establishment of the CBDC. But content production has been part of Dentsu’s activities for 60 years: it produced one of the first variety shows on Japanese TV back in the days before TV was seen as an entertainment medium. The move was of course not driven by an altruistic desire to entertain, but was a way to make TV more relevant for viewers and, crucially, advertisers.
Building on this heritage, Yoshizaki set the CBDC up in October 2016. The idea is that it avoids being media- or brand-centric, but will let brands in on quality content at a later stage. More than a businessman looking to milk an opportunity, Yoshizaki appears to be passionate about content itself. He is clear that in order to work—i.e. to be received favourably by audiences—content should first be produced independently, maintaining a distance from advertisers. Dentsu’s president and CEO, Toshihiro Yamamoto, reportedly wants the rest of the company to learn from the division’s approach.
A pre-CBDC example of this philosophy is the creation of AKB48. The brainchild of producer Yasushi Akimoto, the pop idol group may not be everyone's idea of quality content, but it is undeniably a phenomenon that has had a profound impact on the Japanese entertainment industry. AKB started out humbly, as a live act performing at a single venue in Akihabara. It was Dentsu’s involvement, and the introduction of a major mobile service provider client, that set the group on course for national and eventually international success. Distributing the content on the client’s new mobile video platform paid off for both parties, with AKB reaching a much wider audience while driving profits for the video service.
Yoshizaki says he wants to create more joint businesses that work in a similar way. He sees animation as an area that still has great potential, particularly because of the merchandising opportunities it offers. One project Yoshizaki describes involves adapting Japanese content for international audiences, such as the Mega Man gaming franchise (Rockman in Japan) and an animation featuring Bearbrick, a collectible toy lineup made by MediCom Toy.
Feature films are another important area: Dentsu is currently working on a film with the director Keishi Ohtomo, having set up a separate company with him. The arrangement will see Dentsu promote Ohtomo’s content internationally and introduce brands for possible collaboration. Dentsu has also partnered with Yoshimoto Kogyo, an Osaka-based entertainment company, with promises to support new business ventures and possible Asian expansion.
As you might expect, Dentsu’s aim is to be not just a facilitator, but a central controlling force between content owners and brands. “Our approach is to partner with very strong IP, then the brand can only work with Dentsu in this process,” he explains matter-of-factly. “The brand does of course have other choices, but when the IP is controlled by Dentsu we believe they will have more business chances than by just teaming up independently.”
Yoshizaki is unable to discuss specific examples of work for clients, but he sees brand involvement in content as thoroughly distinct from advertising. The brands must not dominate but lift the content. “One thing that is very important is that the creator and the corporate side share the same values,” he says. “The creator has to understand what the brand and its values are, but the brand also has to personalise, think about who they want to target and convey it to the creator.”
Even if a brand makes no direct appearance in a piece of content, there might be room for it in spin-off businesses such as merchandising or other extensions. Of course, there is no knowing whether or not a piece of content will succeed. Yoshizaki admits no one can tell how long even AKB48 will remain popular. He sets the success bar for the content business at around 30%. “When you think of succeeding 100%, I don’t think it can be a fun business,” he says.
That means clients will need to be somewhat adventurous to get on board but Yoshizaki is confident that enough will understand the risk and the potential payoff. He anticipates working not necessarily with marketers but with people at other levels of client organisations who may not have the same preconceptions about what branding and content should be. As a result, he sees the content business taking an increasingly strategic role within Dentsu.
As well as music, Yoshizaki points to esports and gaming more generally as areas for future investment. Japan is behind in adopting gaming as a spectator sport, largely because outdated laws have lumped it together with gambling, preventing players from making a living at it as they do in a number of other countries. That is now set to change, with the government expected to start issuing pro-licences this year. Yoshizaki sees three clear benefits to gaming production and content around gaming.
“One is, it’s exciting; two is that it’s easy to connect to brands; and three is that it’s easy to set up a payment structure directly from the content,” he says. But he reiterates that whether it’s a game or a feature film, the content should always come first. “What is good for society and what is good for brands has to coexist. There are other sections of Dentsu that put clients first, but the way we handle content, we are doing it for society.”