David Blecken
May 25, 2016

Success has more than one definition: Tugboat's Oka

TOKYO - Ahead of hosting a workshop at Advertising Week Asia in Tokyo at the end of May, Yasumichi Oka, the founder of Tugboat, told Campaign Japan about his regret at not having a clear heir, and his hopes that more young people will branch out and start independent agencies.

Yasumichi Oka
Yasumichi Oka

Oka founded Tugboat 17 years ago after building a career at Dentsu and, while the company has been successful and highly awarded, it remains small, with around 10 staff. Oka admitted that as a result, he is somewhat out of touch with young people and said part of the reason for organising a session at Advertising Week is to connect with younger advertising professionals.

“We’ve achieved a lot being independent,” Oka said. “We have time for ourselves, we are the owners of our business, we earn more than we did when we were at Dentsu, but the bad thing is we don’t have any successors. We’ve never gained any juniors or followers. That was a loss, leaving Dentsu.”

He said he hopes to inspire young people more directly to leave the salaried workforce and compete head-to-head with Japan’s established agencies. Most independent agencies are still dependent on the likes of Dentsu and Hakuhodo for their work, receiving assignments from the bigger agencies on behalf of clients, Oka noted. He claims that while Tugboat collaborates with larger agencies for certain services, “we are not friends” and it stands as a fully independent operator.

“I want to ask why more people don’t do it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s such a challenge.”

Part of the reason might be that advertising simply isn’t as attractive as it once was. Oka said many of the people who would be most valuable for the advertising and media industries tend to aim for careers in technology instead. Other industries, such as law and medicine, have also evolved to become more attractive to free-spirited people than they once were, he said—while advertising has actually become more rigid.

“People working at Dentsu and Hakuhodo didn’t use to look like typical salarymen,” he said. “But the working culture has probably changed. There are lots of places you can go to express yourself these days, and the premium stock look at Dentsu or Hakuhodo as corporations with strict rules and lots of overtime, so it’s not so appealing to them. Being managed and being creative is not a good match. When I was at Dentsu, no creators were managed. I could come and go whenever I wanted. Nowadays it’s really strict. So [the big agencies] are following the opposite direction of other corporations.”

Oka himself left Dentsu at a time when he thought the fun had reached its peak. “I was 38,” he said. “I knew if I stayed, I would be getting further away from the creative field, which I wanted to stay in.”

So how can advertising win talented young people back? Aside from loosening up, “we have to be envied,” he said. He believes a proliferation of independent agencies winning awards will show that it’s possible to be successful while also enjoying personal freedom.

But he said it’s also important for the education system to change. Oka thinks people in Japan are often conditioned to take an “all or nothing” approach, which is unrealistic. He pointed to Ogilvy’s worldwide chief creative officer, Tham Khai Meng, as an example to which many aspire. That’s great for some, but not all, he said.

“People tend to think there’s one right path you have to take to become a successful businessman,” he said. “The other options will be considered second or third-rate, not as different choices. So making your own path as an entrepreneur is not seen as a valid career choice.

“I want to suggest to people that they have two options," he said. "You can be like Khai. But you can also be someone like me, happy with what you are doing on a much smaller scale. There are a lot of artisans in Japan who we can be proud of around the world. Japanese people are suited to being artisans—people who can really concentrate on the work they’re given. If you’re a creator, you can concentrate on creativity and live a life that’s happy and fruitful. That’s a choice for younger people—you don’t always have to aim for the top of a corporation.”


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