David Blecken
Dec 18, 2017

The themes that defined Japanese marketing in 2017

The industry is in a state of upheaval, but that’s no reason to be pessimistic.

The themes that defined Japanese marketing in 2017

Here in Japan, the year ends on a note no less dramatic than 2016. We have just seen a private equity company buy one of Japan’s biggest agencies. The deal has implications not just for ADK and Japan, but for the global advertising industry: namely, that amid excited talk of the advertising model being broken, powerful investors still see great potential for the industry to transform and thrive. As one observer argues this week, there is good reason for agency folk everywhere to be optimistic.

Of course, that’s not to deny that the marketing business still has serious problems to sort out. Advertising agencies are only just beginning to take action to curb the scourge of overwork. In that respect, the business is in a better position than it was 12 months ago. But for every company with a serious plan in place for change, it’s clear that numerous others intend to carry on as before, stretching their staff to the extreme and hoping to remain under the radar. And this is just advertising—the working culture at PR agencies has not been discussed at length, but is also in need of review. For meaningful improvement to happen in agencies of any kind, clients themselves need to be open to working differently and more efficiently, and this is something we hope to see gather momentum in 2018.

Another major theme this year was transparency. Marketers in Japan have typically placed more trust in their agencies and other suppliers to act in their best interests than in many markets. Trust is a good thing, but it must not be abused. Slowly, big advertisers like Sony are starting to take action. The company conducted its first digital media audit this year, moving more in line with the likes of P&G and Nestlé, which apply the same rigour to their activities in Japan as to any global market. Those who have considered what there is to gain from greater openness hope this will be the start of more sweeping change in the way media is bought and sold.

The topics that dominated the business globally also received lots of attention in Japan. The Cannes Lions festival is reflecting on its purpose, just as the industry itself is. Marketers and agency people are still trying to work out whether consulting firms are good for the business, and if so, how to work with them. In the end, it looks likely that consultancies and agencies will increasingly come to resemble one another. As Accenture Interactive continues to look for outstanding creative companies to acquire, agencies like Dentsu and Hakuhodo are launching their own consulting-like units that aim to tackle business problems rather than advertising briefs.

AI and blockchain were the buzzwords of the year and are here to stay. While they’ve certainly inspired some grandiose proclamations at conferences, aside from some isolated examples, few people globally really seem to understand what these technologies mean for the marketing industry or how to begin integrating them into day-to-day work. Smart speakers are a good place to start, and in 2018 we expect to see advertisers start to experiment with these platforms, make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. But it must be said that despite its appetite to understand advanced technology, Japan is unexpectedly challenged due to a shortage of people with the requisite skills. As Rakuten’s head of technology noted at this year’s New Economies Summit, 99% of the company’s AI department is non-Japanese.

Diversity of talent, and gender diversity, was not as big a theme in Japan as it might have been. Advertising in particular still suffers from a shortage of female leaders, and this is unlikely to change overnight. However, there are encouraging signs, not least the appointment of Chieko Ohuchi as one of Dentsu’s first female executive officers. For more promotions like this to happen, the issue of diversity must not be allowed to fade from the spotlight, and companies must make a deliberate effort to present female role models. Will the #MeToo movement also have an impact on Japanese advertising and female empowerment? It remains to be seen.

The narratives described above are complex and ongoing, but we at Campaign hope that we have been able to offer some insight into them over the course of the year. We would like to thank you for your interest and support, and wish you a restful holiday season and an enlightened and successful 2018.

Campaign Japan

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