Barry Lustig
May 20, 2016

There's no substitute for getting out into the world: Akira Kagami

In the first of a series of interviews examining the changing nature of marketing creativity in Japan, we hear from someone who has shaped much of what we see today: Akira Kagami.

Akira Kagami
Akira Kagami

Formerly Dentsu's creative chief, Kagami now serves as executive advisor to Drill, an independent Japanese agency. The first Japanese national invited to chair a jury at Cannes, he has won nearly every major creative award in the industry including Cannes, Clios and One Show. In his 40-year career at Dentsu, Kagami produced pioneering work for brands like Panasonic, Coca-Cola, Nissan China and WoWow. Here, he shares his thoughts on today’s creative landscape and Japan’s place in it.

How is Japanese creative work unique?

One of the most significant aspects for Japanese creative work is that we really depend on the language, especially in TVCs. For me, this is a good thing about Japanese creative. It’s very easy to communicate with each other using our common language.

Also humour, which is related to language. Japanese commercials depend on comedy. The Japanese sense of humour is an essential differentiator in our creative work. Because there are such strong cultural differences between Japan and other parts of the world, it is hard for people who are not Japanese to appreciate this. They always ask, “Why is this funny?”.

What can Japanese creatives do to increase their perspective?

Young people should not just stick to their computer. They should go outside. Go to another city. Look at what is happening in new places. Go abroad and look and see what is happening there. I think this is key for creative people.

Also, very few creatives working in Japan are able to speak and work in English. Whenever I am talking with younger people, I am always saying, “You should learn English.” Even if you are working in Japan on domestic accounts, still you need to learn English. This is the universal language for the creative industry.

Why is Japanese advertising so dependent on the use of celebrities?

Using celebrities is still one of the most effective ways for brands to communicate in Japan. This is because it is a kind of universal language for us. We don't need any introduction to these people. We know the celebrities very well so this makes it easy for them to communicate with their audience. Of course, I don't like this. Sometimes commercials or other ads seem to be only using celebrities as celebrities. For me, this is kind of a pity. Creative ideas should never depend just on celebrities. At the same time, I understand what an advertiser feels, and why they want to use celebrities. They never want to fail, especially the person in charge of the advertising or PR.

How can creatives persuade conservative advertisers to take more risks?

You should talk to the top people. I believe that is the only way. One of the biggest challenges of our job as creative people is how to make contact with the top people. It is the same all over the world. For example, Wieden+Kennedy and Nike; they did a wonderful job together. One of the reasons they could do that is that Dan Wieden could talk with Phil Knight at Nike directly. This top-to-top dialogue is how our business should work. There are a lot of other good examples of this too, like how Lee Clow and Steve Jobs worked in partnership at Apple.

How important is Japanese identity to the success of Japanese companies globally?

Recently, a lot of Japanese companies don't want to put Japan in front of their product because they want to work in a global way. There is no problem for them in doing this.

Nissan does really well in mainland China. They have succeeded in part because they never put the Japanese brand in front of Chinese consumers, they just sell themselves as Nissan. There are a lot of anti-Japanese campaigns in China. But still, Nissan is doing well there.

So I am wondering if the Japanese brand is still as important to the success of Japanese industry as it once was. Of course, sometimes I am judging award shows in Asia and there I can see that the Japan country brand is still strong. But regrettably, it’s not as strong as it was in a global way.

I don't know what will happen in the next decade. But, to me, it seems like country brands used to represent ideals or idealistic visions, but now people have more realistic images of countries. People are believing less in country brands and more in themselves and their actual experiences with people in other places. For creative people, this means that we need to consider how to communicate with people as individuals rather than as groups. At least this is my wish.

How can advertisers get the best work from their creative teams in Japan?

I am always working on how to make a connection between the top people at the advertiser and creative people. If you want to do good creative, this is very important.

Long term, stable relationships are how advertisers can get the best work. The most interesting part of having a long-term relationship with an advertiser is that the agency’s scope of work expands over time. In my own career, I had some good success working with Panasonic for almost 20 years. Sometimes you are working to help develop new products, not just communications. Sometimes it's working on the advertiser’s business plan itself. But to do this from an agency perspective, you need to work with advertisers for a long period of time. If you have only worked with them for one year or something, advertisers won’t believe you.

I have also found that advertisers think very seriously about their products and company. This means that I am always learning new things from them. Listening carefully to advertisers provides creatives with a good chance to think about what’s really important for their business.

Clients need input from the outside, but they will not accept advice from people they have not known for a long time.

Another important challenge is that it’s very hard for agencies to earn enough income from advising advertisers now. There are many management and design firms who have entered this space and compete.

These consultants are smart. They know what is lacking in a client’s business. They use their own creative way and creative thinking to help the clients with their business challenges. It’s really natural for them to help clients innovate but it’s a terror for us. If we lose our ability to advise advertisers, we just become a kind of creative supplier.

What are the biggest challenges for creatives working in Japan?

We have two major challenges. One is history and the other one is craft.

Sometimes, young creatives don't learn from the history of our industry. One of the reasons for this is that [traditional] work is almost out of print or creatives are working with a new technology and think that history doesn't apply to them. Sometimes young people spend a lot of time doing things that have been done before. This is a big loss for their talent and their brain.

The other challenge is craft itself. Of course, craft is not just about directing photography or design for print. The most important craft we have in this industry is how to create an idea that focuses on one big message. With digital media, there are no time limitations. That means that anyone can say anything. So unfortunately, many creatives have lost their craft.

What are your wishes for Campaign in Japan?

Any industry, not just our industry, needs journalists. Unfortunately, in Japan, there are very few journalists covering our industry. So I have high expectations for Campaign’s work in Japan.

Our industry is changing very quickly. Now there are many new industry participants. Some are ordinary people. I hope Campaign can cover them as well as new and emerging talents to encourage our industry to become more inclusive.

This article is part of Campaign Japan's Creativity in Japan series.

Read this article in Japanese on Campaign Japan.

Barry Lustig is managing partner of Cormorant Group, a Tokyo-based business and creative strategy consultancy


Related Articles

Just Published

21 hours ago

Alibaba posts slowest quarterly growth on record, ...

Losses increased because of decline in value of investments in publicly-traded companies; backing for newer businesses such as Taocaicai and Taobao Deals; and the continued impact of Covid.

22 hours ago

Tech Bites: Week of May 23, 2022

News from Yahoo, JCDecaux, CREA, PubMatic, Xaxis and more. Plus, Alibaba reaches a milestone in the quarter of serving over 1 billion annual active consumers in China

1 day ago

Heineken sends RFI to creative agencies

The global brewer is looking to kick off meetings in Cannes in pursuit of a new global creative ecosystem.

1 day ago

Should luxury brands reduce their dependence on China?

For luxury brands, taking the current Covid-impacted softness in mainland China as a cue to reduce exposure to the market is the wrong approach.