Barry Lustig
Feb 16, 2017

What it’s like to be a foreign female creative in Japan (pretty good, actually)

Claudia Cristovao of AKQA discusses the unexpected advantages of miscommunication, digital’s “blind spot”, and what is needed to nurture female talent in Japan.

Claudia Cristovao
Claudia Cristovao

Continuing our series on female leadership in Japan, Barry Lustig of Cormorant Group speaks to Claudia Cristovao, group creative director at AKQA Tokyo. Originally from Portugal but having studied and worked in London and Amsterdam, Cristovao describes her experience as a foreigner and a woman in Japanese advertising. Much of that experience has been highly positive, but she thinks a mindset change is needed for more women to achieve their potential in this industry. 

What brought you to Japan?

A freelance project brought me here for two and a half weeks that turned into two and a half years.

What made you decide to stay?

I wasn’t particularly following anything in Japan before I got here. When I saw how people worked, what kinds of ideas people had, and what kinds of patterns emerged, I was incredibly intrigued.

The creative norms here in Japan are so strong, the quality of the ideas that push up need to be very high. Or they have to be particularly off-norm…and that interested me a lot. So I thought it was an intense, productive, creative world like nothing I had ever experienced. I wanted to understand it better and be immersed in it.

Did you feel welcomed in Japan as a foreign creative?

I felt at home...literally. I was surrounded by people who made me feel at home and acknowledged my foreignness in very positive ways; it was really friendly.

Also in this series:

What contribution do you think your Japanese colleagues were seeking from you?

Apart from great ideas and a thoughtful approach, a lot of what is not easy to find here is a worldly view. Also, adaptability: not just of creative output but also in terms of understanding insight. A lot of what I tried to bring, and a lot of what I was asked to bring, was to have enough openness to work smoothly within the Japanese system without being entirely a part of it.

It's always important to have people in the room that say, "Oh, why is that?" These kinds of questions are especially useful when they are mixed with a huge love for the place you are in and a genuine attempt to understand it.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced working in Japan?

It took me a while to understand something very obvious: that you don’t have to speak the same language. I've now learned that it’s possible to have incredibly rewarding relationships with creatives who don’t speak English. There is a level of trust and curiosity that makes it work. I’ve also found that the space of miscommunication is really productive. Sometimes the misinterpretation leads to something much more interesting than the original direction.

I often misinterpret what I hear and what I say often gets misinterpreted back. I cannot count the amount of times this has led to something potentially more interesting because we are guessing with our best intent.

How are creative processes in Japanese agencies different than in other parts of the world?

It took me a while to realize that Japanese didn’t particularly use brainstorms. In Japan there is more of a tendency to figure things out more by yourself. I’ve also found that people are very generous with feedback and are willing to rework ideas and to try to get them to another level. I think it works really well. It's just quite different.

What do you think are the biggest opportunities in Japan for creative agencies?

I'm a subscriber to the view that Japan is an exceptional market. I find Japan to be a special market, quite unique, very hard to compare to other markets, which for me is perfectly fine. I don’t think our job is to be here saying, "In Europe they've done this or that, therefore we should do it." That kind of thinking rarely applies to Japan.

I think it's important to understand what is the truth of the reality here [in Japan]. What would be the logical and the surprising thing to do and not follow the footsteps of others?

How do you see digital marketing’s relationship to gender?

A big thing that’s been on my mind is how the digital world has a blind spot for women. I think a lot of current digital spaces are under-marketed, by omission or by ignorance or by cliché. They are not hitting the spot. I see a lot about safety online. But I don’t see a lot about effectiveness of messaging or successful, insightful communication.

A lot of numbers are there already. On nearly all social platforms, women number more than men except on LinkedIn and Twitter, and only by a small margin. Women's activity flux is higher. Their purchasing online is higher. It's kind of puzzling that they aren’t the majority of the target on almost everything.

I'm referring to global figures but I can’t imagine that things are much different here in Japan than they are elsewhere in this regard. It's interesting to think of the adequacy of messages that are going out to that huge majority because targets on digital are not unique people but are situations and repeat occurrence of interaction. In this case, even more so, female. So that's something that felt to me like an incredible cultural opportunity but also is a business opportunity.

Why do you think there are so few female leaders in agencies in Japan?

I actually have the experience of having worked with amazing women here in Japan, mostly on the client side. When I first arrived in Japan to work with Weiden + Kennedy, I had an MD who was a woman (Trish Adams) and an ECD (Sumiko Sato) who was a woman. That's not something I have ever experienced even in Europe. So I guess I came to Japan and had the opposite experience. I was incredibly privileged and incredibly happy.

To answer your question, it’s probably something in the culture. There is not a neutral acceptance of women. I guess it’s the educational system. It starts early on. By not being as nourishing to women in terms of pushing them forward and having professional expectations put upon. It’s not a very positive space. For a lot of people, that means not very much happens. So I think there is a lot that can be improved.

How can agency leaders best nourish female talent?

What does work is to listen from a female point of view. Don’t exotic-fy it. It's not exotic. It’s the majority of the world. It's not niche. It's proper point of view which should be listened to equally.

Also identifying women who can do it and women who would do it really well who might not be sure of themselves. I think a lot of women are quite unaware of how good they are and just how much better they could be.

What advice would you give to your female colleagues?

I guess it depends on the women.

Some of the young women who spoke to me lately spoke about the lack of mentors. What they felt was uneasy about how fragile their conviction was because it is so unsupported. They felt uneasy about wanting to do more, knowing they could do more and settling for less because they felt a lack of acknowledgement.

Ambition in females is something that is not looked for. So I would say that if you have ambition, take it seriously as others may not. Look for people who will support you and who will say that your ambition is completely normal.

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

This story was also published in Japanese on Campaign Japan: 

Campaign Japan

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