In July, Yosuke Suzuki took over as managing director of R/GA Tokyo following the departure of Masami Hazui. In his first interview since being appointed, the former executive strategy director discusses his ambitions for the company and the direction he sees Japan moving in.
R/GA opened for business in Tokyo in May 2017, with Suzuki as one of the founding members。 The office now has 31 people and in addition to Google, which was its initial anchor client, works with Shiseido, Glico and Japanese brands in the entertainment, robotics, service platform and banking sectors. Suzuki is credited with having led the wins of much of the agency's new business.
Suzuki said continuing to cultivate local clients was a priority. Many still don’t know what R/GA “is about”, he said, noting that advertising is a relatively small part of the company’s business. “There’s no reason to work with us for a TV campaign,” he said.
As in other markets, R/GA prides itself on creating products, services and “brand experiences”. He sees R/GA as offering something in between consultancies like Accenture and McKinsey and creatively focused independents such as Teamlab and Rhizomatiks. He sees an opportunity to help Japanese companies upgrade their “old school” approach to digital platforms and services, ranging from loyalty programmes to apps and chatbots. He made clear that R/GA’s approach tends not to be “campaign”-oriented and that the work can take some time to come to fruition.
“We’ve been here for about a year and a half but most of the work has not come out yet,” he said. “We need to make sure the products coming out are of a global standard.”
For Shiseido, R/GA installed a team inside the client organisation. While this approach is becoming increasingly common in the advertising world, Suzuki said “it’s not for every client or every project”. “It needs to be a relationship based on respect,” he said. “I think it’s easier for us to sit with them. Effectively you’re part of [the company] and as a result the work is much better, but it can only work if the client has the same mentality. It could be something we increase doing but not necessarily something we always do.”
Staff interests matter
Apart from ensuring R/GA delivers on expectations to clients, an area Suzuki seems passionate about is staff development. Every company needs to have a “mission” in order to grow, he said, but it means little unless it aligns with the staff’s personal goals. He said he wants R/GA employees to see the company as “a place where you can hone your skills, develop the areas you want to as a person and grow your career”.
Suzuki noted that agencies typically struggle with high turnover. He said while the desire for more money was one reason to move around, another is lack of attention employers give to personal development, meaning individuals are forced to move in order to develop rounded experience. In the agency world, it tends to be “every man for himself” to a much higher degree than on the client side, he said.
Before joining R/GA Suzuki worked at five companies, including BBH, Naked Communications, Dentsu, DDB and Coca-Cola. Of those five, he singled out BBH as the employer where he learnt the most and that had the biggest influence on his professional life. Still, he said R/GA is the only company that has shown an interest in his own career development.
“When I was younger, we never talked about that, and I just think that’s wrong now,” he said. “I believe that's something I have to do. No one did that for me, but it’s something I feel I have to do for my people.”
He admitted it would not be easy given the nature of the agency business.
“Working on a car brand for 10 years is not necessarily a bad thing, but that person might have different aspirations. But because talent is scarce, it’s hard to take people off [one assignment] and give them something new… Agencies have a hard time planning because you don’t have enough clarity on where your business is going to go. So business reality kind of doesn’t support companies to really home in on people’s skills. That’s understandable, but there must be a way to balance both and that’s a challenge I’ve taken upon myself.”
He said he didn’t expect people to continue working at R/GA “till they die”, but that he wanted them to leave “for the right reasons”. (Jim Moffatt, R/GA’s former regional head, was with the company for nearly a decade before leaving this month to take up a role at Engine overseeing Europe and Asia.)
“They have to leave positively—to go and work on a brand they’ve always wanted to work at, to do something they just have to do. Not because they don’t want to work here anymore.”
He said he wanted to encourage “boomerangs”—people who rejoin the company at a later time, with additional experience. He added that he wanted R/GA to be an office that competitors “want to steal people from”.
Japan’s economy has seen an impressive uptick under prime minister Shinzo Abe, and with the onset of Tokyo 2020, there are good reasons for the country to be optimistic. In this climate, Suzuki said he sees more openness to new ideas. He said the desire among more Japanese companies to be international had led people to be more “outward-looking” but also to rediscover Japan’s best qualities and try to combine them with those from elsewhere. He said this informed R/GA’s philosophy, which in Tokyo is a roughly equal split of Japanese and international staff.
“We understand these two worlds need to fuse together to come out with a different solution,” he said. “It’s respecting how Japan has frown, taking global stuff and creating something new and better. People are welcoming startups. Ten years ago, if you were a startup the legacy brands or government would try to shut you down, but now those companies want to work with startups and be stimulated by them.”