David Blecken
May 27, 2019

"Strategy isn't what's demanded of a PR agency"

In this Q&A, Dentsu PR's president and CEO gives a frank assessment of what the industry in Japan needs and doesn't need.

Kazunori Azeyanagi (photo provided by Dentsu PR)
Kazunori Azeyanagi (photo provided by Dentsu PR)

As part of an interview about Dentsu PR’s partnership with a US think tank last week, Campaign took the opportunity to ask the agency’s president and chief executive, Kazunori Azeyanagi, for his views on broader issues affecting the industry.

As well as running Dentsu PR since 2016, Azeyanagi is head of the Public Relations Society of Japan. While he aims to improve the way the PR sector is perceived in the country, he resists overselling it. For those who have been left dazed by the hyperbole that sometimes emanates from agency executives, Azeyanagi’s low-key observations might seem more in line with the actual state of the industry.

You became president of the Public Relations Society of Japan (PRSJ) last year. What do you want to achieve in this role, and how much progress have you made so far?

The PRSJ is approved by the Japanese government, and the public interest part is very important. My mission is to raise the profile of public relations, and to increase the number and quality of PR professionals in the country. So far, we have changed the membership system to enable private membership, because we want to open the society up to more people and grow the industry together.

Japan’s PR industry is now worth more than 100 billion yen (US$913 million), up from around 65 billion ($594 million) 10 years ago. What’s driven this growth?

One factor is there are more people doing PR work. Another is that the people delivering and receiving information have diversified, and the relationship with media has flattened out… For the person delivering the information, it doesn’t matter if it’s advertising or PR, as long as their message gets out.

A message that gets picked up organically in the media is more credible than a paid message, surely?

That’s changed now. What’s important is the content of the message and the recipient decides if it’s credible or not.

A recent PRSJ survey of PR professionals described the industry as female-dominated, but I would argue that this is not the case, since most top executives we see are still male. Is this ever going to change?

We need to increase the number of female leaders in PR, help them take on bigger projects and have them learn from their mistakes. The life stages of male workers and female workers are different so there needs to be a system in place that supports this. It’s something we have in progress.

PR agencies are fond of saying traditional PR and media relations are dead, and that it’s all about direct engagement with audiences. Yet the survey shows traditional activities take up most of a PR pro's day. There seems to be a disconnect somewhere...

Media relations shouldn’t die. It’s a question of combining it with other types of media. You can’t live just on social media. Not everything on TV is true, but it’s still more believable than the fake news that comes out on social media, so I think it’s time we should reevaluate traditional media, at least in Japan.

Which non-traditional discipline do you see as the most important over the coming decade?

A lot of new areas are already being commoditised, but one that needs to grow is communications consulting: what communcations activities are necessary to maximise corporate value. There are various stakeholders so PR is more important than advertising in this context.

People at Dentsu Inc often talk about the need to find new revenue streams in order for the company to continue to be successful long-term. Do you feel this pressure?

I think it’s important to diversify revenue streams, and one thing we’re doing is helping clients in new ventures whereby we’ll support communications activities but won’t necessarily charge fees. Later on when they’re profiting, we’ll get a cut, or perhaps have stock options.

I see the PR industry as having a dearth of strategic planning expertise. What can be done to resolve this?

Even at our company, there’s more weight on the execution part. Strategy isn’t what’s demanded of a PR agency at this moment. There’s a tendency in Japan just to ask advertising agencies for that part. Internationally I think it’s a little different.

Dentsu PR obviously benefits from having access to creative people at Dentsu. But thinking as the president of the PRSJ, do PR agencies benefit from hiring people from more creative backgrounds? This was a craze a few years ago that seems to have fallen flat.

I don’t believe PR agencies need to hire creatives. What’s important is that people can write a creative brief. It’s hard to [integrate creative people] in an agency. The role of a PR agency is to create the message. How it’s packaged doesn’t have to be the role of the PR agency. Creatives have short primes—they’re like fads. The world changes very quickly.

You want to raise PR’s value in society. How would you convince an average Joe off the street that PR is important?

I don’t think there’s any way to convince them directly. If they feel someone is very good at conveying a message or communicating in general and they’re in the industry, then that’s good for the industry.

It’s still common for junior staff to see agencies as a stepping stone to more comfortable in-house roles. Do you see anything being done to change this?

There are companies out there that use the turnover [to avoid paying people more]. A lot of what people do at agencies is commoditised work, and there’s less and less money in it. We’re fortunate because we have Dentsu, so a lot of our junior staff, even if they’re not skilled enough to meet clients on their own, can go and work in a team at Dentsu and using that experience, keep on growing.

Responses edited for length. Following the initial publication of this article, Dentsu PR said it wished to clarify certain comments, as follows: “Dentsu PR is not solely committed to execution. While we believe that strategy is and always will be an integral part of our offerings, we also believe that we cannot fulfill the needs of our clients without providing execution services."

Campaign Japan

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