In many ways, international advertising agencies in Japan are distinct from the biggest domestic institutions. They are vastly different in size, culture and in terms of their business models. But it would be naïve to think that they are not subject to similar challenges, particularly when it comes to client demands and staff exertion. One HR consultant in Tokyo estimated conservatively that the average overtime at foreign agencies is three hours a day, not to mention being on call for weekend work at client whims. The consultant said an employee who recently joined a major multinational agency complained of working 60 hours of overtime in a week.
Publicis One is one example of a foreign network with a relatively large presence in Japan that is trying to change the way people work. It’s on a much smaller scale than the measures companies like Dentsu (a 33% stakeholder in Beacon Communications, part of Publicis One) and ADK are taking. But it is an important step to recognising that a problem exists and needs addressing.
The company is experimenting with ways to constrain overtime. One simple measure has been to compel staff to ask for permission to work longer than standard hours. If returning home by taxi (due to missing the last train home) more than four times in a month, they are required to ask the managing director, Floriane Tripolino, directly. The agency has also introduced fixed meeting slots of either 20, 40 or 60 minutes and encouraged people to spend no more than 20 where possible, installing timers in the meeting rooms.
“I realised there are two kinds of measure we can use. One is to condemn and one is incentive-based…it’s way better to encourage people than to condemn them.”
These might sound like small measures, but they are designed to make people consider more carefully how they use their time. This year, Publicis also introduced ‘seasonal hours’ to encourage staff to leave the office at 3pm on Friday afternoons during the summer and winter months. Tripolino admitted that not all staff have taken advantage of the measure, but said it led to a 20% reduction in overtime over July and August.
“I realised there are two kinds of measure we can use,” Triplolino said. “One is to condemn and one is incentive-based…it’s way better to encourage people than to condemn them” for working too long. She said some staff had never even experienced leaving the agency during daylight hours. “When they experience it, they realise the beauty of it. When they realise it’s nice to go home earlier, the consequence is that they become more efficient.”
Tripolino said she has encouraged people to start work at 9 rather than at the usual 10 or 10.30. That is only just starting to take hold, but in general she said the prospect of leaving early had led people to concentrate better and accomplish more in the mornings. In general, people appeared more motivated to complete their work and go home, she said. “Finishing on Thursday knowing the next day is shorter gives a new dynamic to the week,” she said, adding that meetings became more efficient and that participants were “more switched on”.
Publicis One’s clients, most of which are international, apparently responded positively and expressed support for the initiative by avoiding emails or phone calls during the out-of-office periods. Tripolino said shorter working days did not have any impact on the agency’s deliverables.
The agency does not have a remote working policy in place but Tripolino said 45 people are undergoing a trial that allows working from home for up to six days a month, with a view to making things easier for working mothers and those who need to care for elderly parents. The program is slated to start formally in January.
The measures Publicis One has introduced so far are a step forward. But at a meeting Campaign attended at the agency, it became clear that some staff members still simply have too much work to fit into a regular working day. Fully solving the problem is likely to require more efficiency measures and possibly additional staff. In an ideal scenario, Tripolino said, seven to 10 hours should be plenty to do what needs to be done. Flexibility is key.
“One day it might be 10, but maybe the next day six,” she said. “If we would stop adding layers that we don’t need and go for a simpler workflow, we would achieve that…There are steps in workflow that have an impact on the client business and some that have lower impact. The problem is that those lower value steps are treated with the same importance.”
"The right work-life balance is something we owe our people. But if we don’t win in efficiency, we’ll be obsolete in five years. Efficiency is a necessity, not just something to ensure wellbeing."
As for meetings, “if you realise you can come to an agreement in 20 minutes, why fill the entire hour?” Triplolino said. Such mindset change needs to come from those in senior positions. “Heads of department that work overtime tend to have staff that work overtime. The role model of the manager in the ability to accomplish a task within working hours is important. It’s easier to leave if your manager has left already.”
In the end, Triplolino thinks it’s important for advertising to remain a “fun” industry, which is impossible if people are stretched beyond their capacity. “We are there to entertain people and the moment we take the fun out of our job, we are useless,” she said. “So the right work-life balance is something we owe our people. But if we don’t win in efficiency, we’ll be obsolete in five years. Efficiency is a necessity, not just something to ensure wellbeing. So I think we should all be behind that.”
This article is part of a series on work reforms in Japanese advertising. It has been updated to specify Dentsu's stake in Beacon Communications. Read all our coverage of the overwork issue here.