David Blecken
Jan 16, 2015

Seven46's Nick Varley on taking Japan to the world

TOKYO – Having played an important role in Tokyo’s bid host the 2020 Olympics, content consultancy Seven46 entered Japan in October in anticipation of further opportunities in the run-up to the games. Campaign spoke to the founding partner, Nick Varley, about guiding Japan to victory and his broader strategy.

Varley: Everything starts with the written word
Varley: Everything starts with the written word

Headquartered in London, Seven46 was founded in 2006. In 2012 it signed a partnership with Havas Sports & Entertainment and in Tokyo is led out of the Havas offices by Emiri Tokunaga. The company takes its name from the time that London won the right to host the 2012 Olympics, a bid Varley worked on as a consultant. Varley is a former sports correspondent with The Guardian, who saw a need for the crafting of strategic narratives in the context of sporting events.

Japan debut

Varley explained that the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee approached him in 2011 to discuss the bid. Seven46 became the lead strategic communications agency for the effort. Seven46 was in charge of brand positioning and contributed PR counsel. Weber Shandwick also supported the bid.

“They [the committee] were strong from a technology point of view, but weak from a communications point of view,” he said, highlighting a problem common to many Japanese organisations. “They wanted to bring the story to life more effectively. We spent two years with the bidding committee to define the story internationally and domestically.”

The winning pitch, delivered by bid ambassador and TV presenter Christel Takigawa, became famous throughout Japan and internationally and arguably helped raise Japanese people’s own awareness of their country’s positive attributes. Takigawa sold Japan on the premise of omotenashi, which translates as ‘selfless hospitality’.

“[The concept of] omotenashi took on a life of its own,” Varley said, explaining that the core idea had been to promote Tokyo, as the potential host city, as “a safe pair of hands and much more”.

“Tokyo’s greatest selling point [initially] was that it had none of the problems of [rival bidders] like Qatar. We also brought out elements that were not as familiar internationally, like omotenashi. Although Japanese people found it difficult to articulate at first, Varley said using the word in its original form ultimately made Tokyo’s proposition stronger.

“It’s what Japan had that was different to everywhere else,” he said.

Niche opportunity

The high-profile achievement naturally gave Varley a foot in the door to the Japanese market, where he sees major opportunity for a consultancy that can help the country in its efforts to communicate effectively internationally.

“What we’re hoping to do in Japan is to bring our services to other clients who need these skills—communication in a global sense rather than just in Japan,” he said. “In terms of clients, we’re concentrating on the stuff we know best in and around sport. Japan is very lucky to have two global events coming up—the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics—those two events really are a chance for Japan to market itself externally.”

He did not rule out the potential of diversifying beyond the sporting arena, stating that while sport would remain at the heart of Seven46, it was “a way into working with lots of people”.

He said that Tokunaga, who was educated in the UK and the US, was the company’s “starting point” in Japan. “When we worked on the 2016 Rio Olympic bid, it became apparent that to keep doing a good level of work, we had to have someone on the ground who is bi-cultural and bi-lingual. What we’ll do is look to start building a team based in Japan but also using the core skills from our team in London.”

Working in conjunction with Havas, he said, had been very important in gaining a global footprint. “Seven46 is still Seven46, but has the advantage of a big network behind it,” he noted.

Approach to content

Varley takes a no-nonsense approach to ‘content’, an idea that many brands everywhere have approached with great enthusiasm but relatively little thought or ability.

“Every agency claims to do content,” he said. “What we mean is content in the old fashioned sense. My background is in journalism. I always stay with the basics of editorial—storytelling and great words, not flashy viral campaigns. It’s about making words resonate, whether printed or distributed digitally.

“While statistics show that visual content is shared more, it all starts with something written in words. If it’s a good idea, you need to be able to explain it. The words may drop away, but it all starts with the right building blocks at the beginning.”

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