Campaign Staff
Jun 26, 2024

The deeper dive: Dentsu’s global R&D unit

Leaders Naoki Tanaka and Sven Huberts reveal plans to expand Dentsu Lab globally and their philosophy: the importance of blending technology with empathy…

The deeper dive: Dentsu’s global R&D unit
In the summer of 2021, while much of the world was still in lockdown, Tokyo belatedly hosted the 2020 Paralympics.
To address the absence of an audience in the stadium to energise and welcome the athletes during the opening ceremony, Dentsu Lab Tokyo created a unique display for each of the 163 competing nations. They used technology to make the national flags appear as if they were moving with the wind and synchronised the melodies of the national anthems to produce movement.
This project took Dentsu Lab Tokyo to the global stage, and so began international expansion plans for the creative R&D studio.
Beyond nationality and culture
“With that experience I noticed that Dentsu Lab ideas had potential to be understood outside of Japan,” said Naoki Tanaka, chief creative officer at Dentsu Lab. “Most of our work is in integrating humanity with technology, which is universal, beyond nationality and culture.”
Dentsu Lab was established in Tokyo in 2014 and earlier this month the agency network announced plans to open hubs in London, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Mumbai and Bengaluru, with further international Labs to follow in 2025. 
Tanaka leads the unit alongside Sven Huberts, president, global innovation and experience at dentsu, and president, Dentsu Lab.
According to Huberts and Tanaka, a lot of research has gone into the decision to open up globally, including looking at market opportunities and how consumers are adopting technology.
“If you look at the world today, there's a lot of focus around the optimisation of data and technology, but we believe that there's a risk of the human perspective being lost,” said Huberts.
The pace of innovation and customers’ expectations of brands were also listed as reasons for why now is a good time to expand the proposition. 
Huberts said the Lab works with a number of clients who have ideas around what they want to do but who need a partner to help them with methodology and building prototypes, which also provides opportunities internationally.
Humanity and technology
According to Tanaka, the studio works to apply a human lens, to inspire emotion to clients’ own R&D work, which is often focused on looking only at the technology behind ideas.
This approach to combining research with technology and humanity has led to a number of innovative solutions, including Project Humanity, which focuses on helping people with ALS who cannot move their bodies to express themselves. 
After discovering that those with ALS can still produce the brain signals that are needed to move their muscles, Dentsu Lab Tokyo set out to create a solution for Masa, a DJ with ALS. They made it possible for him to create music and perform to the crowd through an avatar controlled using electric signals from his own body.
Working with Japanese communications giant and dentsu client NTT, Masa has since been able to play live from Japan, with very low latency, to destinations around the world including Austria, France and the USA.
Tanaka said it was an emotional moment to see the technology work, change lives and to make people smile, and added that crucially these kinds of experiments also help change people’s perspectives around creative technology and its ability to make the world a better place. 
He said: “Before the audience sees the demonstration, they don’t believe Masa can move his body, but after seeing it, they believe it. And of course, for all of the people with disabilities in the world, this gives them a lot more possibilities.”
Tanaka, who has been with Dentsu Lab Tokyo for 10 years, highlighted that the business has always been focused on humanity and empathy and having a positive impact on society.
He pointed to the importance of its research power, both when it comes to finding the best solution for the client, and for the purpose of building a shared knowledge base that can be used by all of the international Labs.
“If we don't do the research correctly, we will be answering the brief with what we understand currently, which would be very boring and limit opportunity,” Tanaka added.
Dentsu Lab's global mission is to create innovations which drive impact, with around 50% of the existing projects from Tokyo having a specific focus on solving societal challenges.
New leadership teams
Dentsu Lab is set to announce its EMEA leadership team in the near future, as well as the dedicated specialist teams for the different new local offices.
Huberts explained that the offices in London, Amsterdam and Warsaw will open first, with leadership teams being announced during or after the summer, while Mumbai and Bengaluru will follow in the fourth quarter of this year.
He added that the business decided on Warsaw because dentsu already has a team of 14 people focused on design and computation who are based there and wanted to invest in its existing proposition.
Huberts said: “There's a lot of technology talent in Poland, and we feel that there's so much potential to liberate that in a more creative context, because a lot of technology is focused on the enterprise component and not on that next generation creative experience which is what we will be looking at.”
To find out more go to
Dentsu Lab at Cannes 2024
Denstu took to the stage both on their own beach and at the Palais, first giving the context and thinking behind their creativity then a live demonstration of how technologies are changing the lives of disabled people.
Three people with significant mobility restrictions, linked live to the Palais and played a three-minute eSports game – a simple game of car football! – alongside a member of the audience. All four competitors controlled the cars with tiny movements of their hands or eyes – depending on their own physical limits. What became clear was in a virtual space, there were no limits.
Tanaka’s energetic presentation had the Palais audience enthralled while the speech from Hiroshi Igarash, dentsu's president and global CEO, illustrated the thinking that has driven the 120-year-old company: “What a difference we can make. Take a moment: listen to the past to create the future.”


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