The surprise was understandable: London had been good to Samrai, a Brit of Indian heritage. The past 30 years had seen him build a highly successful career, much of it under the late Saatchi & Saatchi creative legend Paul Arden. But like Graham Fink before him (who left M&C Saatchi’s London office for Ogilvy Shanghai in 2012), Samrai was driven by an urge to frighten himself. With that in mind, he took on the role of chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather Japan in 2013, replacing David Morgan and Shingo Ichimura, who moved on to Havas Worldwide and ADK, respectively.
“There’s a lot of snobbery in London,” he said. “People going to Asia are perceived as having burnt out here and going to cash in elsewhere. That’s so far from the truth. Apart from a great adventure, I felt it was important that even after 27 years, you don’t settle. As a creative person you’re most alive when you’re scared.
Dismantling a stodgy agency
Moving from the position of global creative director leading the rejuvenation of the Vodafone brand under WPP, Samrai also wanted the chance to shape an office. Until 2013, his career had been made up of stages dedicated to creative work for specific clients, including Procter & Gamble, T-Mobile, Sony, Delta Airlines and British Airways.
By all accounts, Ogilvy Japan was not in strong shape creatively when Samrai arrived. His own success was far from guaranteed in a market that has always been challenging to comprehend for outsiders parachuting in, but Samrai found starting from zero energising. One of the first things he did when he arrived was to set about breaking apart the agency’s outdated structure and tired systems.
“We were very siloed and hierarchical and slow, and that made us stagnate,” he said. “There was too much process—that’s what I dismantled.”
A big change was to inject a greater sense of urgency into the working culture. Another was to stop trying to be like Japan’s advertising giants and celebrate Ogilvy’s status as a foreign entity that promised something quite different. The only way he was able to achieve those things was by disregarding received wisdom.
“I was given a lot of advice when I came to Japan,” he said. “The three things I kept hearing were: don’t move too fast to implement change because it freaks people out; don’t be too emotional; and hierarchy and status is everything, so respect it.”
Following those instructions for the first month in the job meant he “didn’t move one millimetre forward”. “I thought, this [move] was a mistake. Then I realised we should stop trying to be a Japanese company. Why would I try to emulate what goes on at the big domestic agencies? I thought, I can’t compete with them in a million years, and I don’t want to. It’s our own DNA that’s going to give us success here.”
Ajab Samrai in brief
- Samrai claims to be only the third person of Asian descent to be hired in British advertising. “I was an oddball—the first Indian kid to get hired at Saatchi & Saatchi. I still don’t think there’s enough diversity in British advertising,” he said.
- He was a leader in anti-racism communications in the UK in the 1990s and continues to actively promote diversity, having served on various public bodies with a focus on making the arts and museums sector more inclusive.
- Now one of the world’s most awarded creative directors, he joined Saatchi & Saatchi in 1987 and stayed there for 23 years, working under Paul Arden and helping bring in £200 million worth of business.
- He is one of the world’s foremost collectors of Sikh painting and manuscripts from the 17th and 19th centuries.
- Yes, the name Samrai is a natural ice-breaker when meeting people in Japan. “People say it’s a good omen for business,” he said, although he admitted he was initially worried that they "would think I was taking the piss”.
To light a fire under his staff, he first rebuilt the office physically. “It was a horrible, depressing place,” he recalled. “People had booths like in a call centre.” The barriers were ripped out, a central meeting point for different disciplines and outside guests installed, and art from local artists brought in, creating a space more conducive to communication and original thinking. In a symbolic move, staff members were invited to smash the dividers. There was resistance to change at first, with people stacking books to create walls again, but Samrai insists those dark days are now a distant memory.
Creativity at the centre
Samrai then shortened the creative ideation cycle dramatically, from a flabby period of more than two weeks to a matter of days, which he said loosened people up and forced them to think more quickly and easily. This had a knock-on effect across different groups. “The creative department became an engine for change,” he said. “Now it drives the agenda here. We had to introduce people to that system. Most liked it; some didn’t and left, and opened up the door to others.”
Bringing in new kinds of people was important. To begin with, Samrai said Ogilvy Japan was too visually focused—at the expense of creating narratives. Bringing in more writers helped redress the balance. Then instead of chasing the talent that would ordinarily gravitate to the likes of Dentsu and Hakuhodo, he turned his attention to the “oddballs—people who didn’t fit”, but who, often having studied overseas, brought with them strong local knowledge with an international mindset. He has also championed female creatives, who see more opportunities to advance in an agency with limited hierarchy. “But it’s important that you don’t flood the place with people from abroad,” he said. “I want people to have a connection with [local] culture.”
Towards higher status
Samrai said sharing an office with Akihito Kubo, who was president when he joined and is now chairman, has helped build his own understanding of the market as well as send a message that the creative product should be at the heart of everything. The standard of work has undeniably risen: from not having touched the scale for awards in 2012, the agency is now gaining recognition at major shows including Cannes Lions—although Samrai maintains that awards are simply a byproduct of good work and never a primary goal. Highlights include work for Condomania, Tomy, Adot, the University of Tokyo, IBM and Saga City (an adventurous tourism campaign created by Geometry Global).
Ogilvy's 2014 campaign for Condomania
One of the most positive outcomes is that brands that would not have considered working with Ogilvy in the past are taking notice. Since Samrai joined, the agency has taken on work from domestic clients from the beverage, watch and house-equipment sectors, among others. Ogilvy’s style is not for every Japanese marketer, of course, and Samrai has found the delegation of power to lower-level clients who make decisions “by committee” to be frustrating. “I’ve met people who shut you out, but most very senior people I’ve met welcome an international point of view,” he said. “There’s a place for international agencies to sit alongside giants not in size, but in agenda.”
Man of the people
Samrai describes his working style as passionate, hands-on and detail-oriented, the qualities that his mentor Arden was also known for. But his motivation is refreshingly simple.
“It’s quite an odd thing for a creative person to say, but for me it’s building a successful business with the single aim of putting more money in the staff’s pockets,” he said. “People say the brand is king, but my feeling is that we need to build the business to pay staff better. It’s all too easy for companies to forget about their own people … Our greatest success has not been the awards but being able to give people the biggest pay rises and bonuses in a decade. That’s what it’s about.”
He admitted that many challenges remain, but said he is committed to tackling them. “There are still lots of things to fix, but we’re in a better state than we were and I plan to invest a lot of my time here. I’m not going to be one of those guys who just disappears.”