Aika Sawai became AKQA Tokyo’s new managing director last week. Born in New York, Sawai grew up in the US, Japan and Thailand. Leaving Tokyo for Bangkok at the age of 13 caused something of a rupture and made her want to understand Japan’s consumer culture more deeply, a desire that has driven her studies and her subsequent career. Before joining the WPP agency seven years ago, she worked at the telco KDDI and gaming company Gree.
You have lived in the New York and Bangkok. How does your international experience affect the way you see things in Japan?
It allows me to constantly see the world through different lenses, as an everyday local consumer but also how global brands always try to have a better read for the market but find it too mysterious.
What is mysterious about it?
Japanese people still refer to Japan as the ‘Galapagos’ and I think it’s a good metaphor. It has had its own evolution and that still runs very deeply in society.The way people run a business in Japan isn’t that different but the things we serve, the emotions we need to stir and the people we need to move are quite different. It serves us better to think it’s a different market than to think it’s the same [as what we’re used to].
You have spoken about the importance of ‘meaningful innovation’. What does this mean in the context of marketing communications?
The Japanese market is still driven by social order and instead of really trying to understand a problem and what needs to be solved to better enable consumers, what people look for tends to be very rote, building out mechanics, not really thinking from the point of view of how to we actually bring meaning—how do we make the brand a special partner to the right consumers. That kind of approach is not really discussed in Japan; people prefer to answer immediate business needs and don’t think about things from a non-business point of view.
You have said you want to help people succeed regardless of background, ethnicity or gender. How difficult is it to do that in Japan?
The time is ripe. It would have been more difficult one or two years ago but we’re at a fundamental change in the makeup of decision makers and who will define the voice of brands. I think there is a lot of change not just in terms of gender but racial identity and at this point It’s a matter of being courageous and putting yourself in the front seat. The whole wave of Me Too has had an impact on Japan as well as the need for more women in the workforce. The shift in the labour market is happening quickly and it’s changing the landscape of every company so I think it’s driven by the urgency of the situation as well as an external push with Me Too.
Do you think people have really understood what the ‘Me Too’ movement is about?
I think to some extent but there are other homegrown things like the 'KuToo' movement [women resisting the obligation to wear high heels to work]. It’s small things like that which are very symbolic for Japan. Then things like the police app to deal with chikan (train gropers). And we’re starting to see discussions happen about the ‘invisible labour’ issue—all the work women do that doesn’t get recognised or paid.
Do you see Prime Minister Abe’s ‘womenomics’ having any positive effect on the advertising industry?
That’s a slightly different story. It’s more about the grassroots efforts and the media picking up on those movements that are much more encouraging and truthful. People are intelligent enough to see through [‘womenomics’] and that it’s not really coupled with serious policies.
What do you plan to do to help further a more inclusive environment?
Now that I have a more public-facing role I have the responsibility to be more outspoken and make good use of my title to diversify the talent pool in this advertising market. I’m definitely committed to that and it’s a big part of the reason I took on this role.
How do you want to shape AKQA’s business?
I do want to continue to serve clients in the way we have been doing, but I’m also committed to providing a larger-scale platform for business transformation. I have more of a technical background than my predecessor and am completely bilingual so that arena I want to build while I’m here as MD. […]
I hope to make AKQA Tokyo known as a creative studio that’s better known than Rei Inamoto [AKQA’s former global chief creative officer]. I have this personal sense of commitment to beating [his stature in Japan]. That’s an ambitious remark but I think we’ll definitely try and do that.
Is it essential to be bilingual to succeed?
It’s not mandatory but it gives a huge advantage and I’m already experiencing how effective it can be.
What are you most passionate about, in or out of business?
People in Japan are raised to check all the boxes and do everything right according to a programme, but what matters today is not ticking all the boxes but being brave when you think something’s got to change or take a different course of action. My favourite phrase is “Brave, not perfect” which comes from the Ted Talk ‘Girls who code’. That kind of encouragement is something I’m passionate about. I think it’s especially important for Japan today and for leaders to grow.
What themes will define the Reiwa era?
I think the age of mass marketing is ending and it will be all about personalisation. It won’t be cookie-cutter anymore and leveraging technology and data while still being authentic to the brand vision is going to provide the best change for a brand of surviving and growing.
Don’t you think brands have got a bit carried away with personalisation as it is?
I think the medium is changing. Consumers are learning, brands are learning, and I think that comfortable distance is enabling a new dynamic. I think there was a point where the ROI of it didn’t really make sense but I think we’re kind of done with that phase now and it’s now how do we do more with less; how do we use technology to enhance personal communications but not just increase it.