Jessica Goodfellow
Aug 12, 2019

Q&A: AKQA's Sam Sterling on how she plans to bring China and Japan closer together

Sam Sterling believes China and Japan can be stronger together than apart, despite their cultural and commercial differences

Q&A: AKQA's Sam Sterling on how she plans to bring China and Japan closer together

Sam Sterling has today (12 August) been handed responsibility for overseeing AKQA's Japan office, in addition to her role managing the agency in China. As Asia Pacific's two largest markets —markets that are culturally and commercially so vastly different from each other — it is rare to have them overseen by one person.

"It’s definitely a sizeable remit, but I am excited about the opportunity," she says in an interview with Campaign. Sterling, who has been running the China office for 18 months now, plans to find synergies between the two markets to help clients run cross-border campaigns, as well as hone in on what is unique to both.

How will you be splitting your time between China and Japan?

At this stage I intend to spend about 40% of my time in Japan and the rest in China. We are fortunate that we have a strong leadership team in China now — they are well equipped to be able to contribute to running the business but also help realise opportunities for the clients that we have in both countries. Longer term, who knows what the balance is going to be.

When we spoke to AKQA Tokyo’s managing director Aika Sawai in May, she said she would be applying her technical background to how she structured the business. What will you bring to the Japan business?

My background is in strategy. One of the reasons I took the role with AKQA was the opportunity to apply that in a different way. The ability to ask lots of questions, understand the nature of the challenge at hand, bring the tools that I have to the table and rely on the team locally to provide their input and insight, so collectively we can design a business that has the buy in from everyone involved and has everyone's fingerprints all over it.

I was coached on the idea that people in my role shouldn't manage people, they should manage barriers — assemble the right team and spend time getting the barriers out of their way. That will be my task moving forward: identifying and getting rid of the barriers. 

You've said you'll be looking to create cross-border solutions for clients across the two markets. How will this work in two markets that are so vastly different?

Bringing these two studios together creates interesting opportunities for our teams and the ability to work on new and interesting challenges. The opportunity we have is to lean into the advantages and strengths of each market and draw on the expertise, learnings and knowledge of the other where needed so we can create a powerful combination that as a pair is stronger than either of the other would be independently. It's about finding similarities between the two in terms of what the market demands as well as being clear about where opportunities lie in both markets that are different.

What are the key strengths of each market?

Japan is home to precision and perfection, whereas China is about action, iteration and optimisation. Japan stays to true to tradition where China is quite nimble and quick to pivot. 

How will you be applying some of your learnings in China to the Japanese market?

What we are seeing is that physical spaces now play a different role in the overall consumer journey. Retailers in China aren’t necessarily looking to eat away at their physical sales in exchange for digital but rather are looking to digitally transform physical spaces and use digital tools and technology to get the most out of those spaces. 

If you consider a traditional conversion funnel for a brand from awareness through to loyalty, the point of a physical space used to be the point of purchase, awareness would be in traditional advertising like OOH and TV, and the role of loyalty would be direct, below the line advertising and sales. What we are seeing a lot more now is that physical spaces are increasingly playing the biggest role at the top and bottom of the funnel — they are places people go to experience the brand and they are dwelling in them in new ways, so we have to think about how that interacts with offline experience, and the role of owned assets online. As a result in China we've tripled the size of our experience strategy and design team.

What I am interested to find out is how that starts to come into play in Japan. I think the concept of the interface being the brand will be as true in this market, but how that manifests will be what makes the difference.

You said you've tripled the size of your experience strategy and design team. On the flipside, what are you de-investing in?

It is different in each market. We are doing less and less traditional social work, where you create a piece of content, pop it on Facebook or Instagram and think that's sufficient. We are now thinking about the role of engagement and how those channels play a part of an overall environment. In China we don’t do any EDMs or emails because it is not relevant to the market. We also have the beast that is WeChat in China. They release a new feature every five minutes, so we do a lot of platform hacking which is understanding the technical limitations of a platform and behavioural uses of that platform, using those two variables as a way to fuel new solutions and create new content types. 

What is the MVP Studio, and will you roll it out to Japan?

It is one thing to have a great idea, it is another to bring it to life. The MVP Studio is a combination of these two things. We use a rapid-sprint prototyping methodology, In three weeks we take a business challenge, opportunity or insight and prototype a solution for it. We test the solution to validate it with end users, articulate everything that was learnt, what is possible, what is not. Quantify the size of the opportunity for clients and package that up. We have done this with apps, chatbots and AR as an example.

That was born out of our China studio. We are investigating whether or not it is something that clients in Japan will want or not.

What tech trends you are excited about in China and Japan?

One of things we are incredibly excited about is 5G and the mainstream adoption of it. It has the potential to do phenomenal things from content consumption through to how that is going to enable IoT and AR. In many cases adoption of 5G will be a great enabler.

I’ve also been fascinated at how physcial spaces are being transformed. One of our partners in China is doing interesting things with connected spaces — from mapping spaces to see how humans move through them to creating interactivity indicators for how people handle merchandise. This is allowing them to make stores and physical spaces more and more relevant to people. I think that has a lot of potential moving forward.

Campaign Asia

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