John Rowe has left his post of MD of Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) Tokyo to take up a newly created role at the network’s head office in Portland. Replacing him is Ryan Fisher, who was formerly based in London as the agency’s group account director for Nike across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Rowe, who joined W+K’s Tokyo office in March 2015, will become group brand director, with a focus on Samsung, the agency’s second-biggest account after Nike. Rowe explained the role had been created following a restructure at the Portland office to form a number of “pods”. He described these as “mini agencies inside an agency”, each with its own P&L.
During Rowe’s tenure, W+K Tokyo approximately doubled in size both in terms of revenue and staff (which now numbers 75). He requested that revenue figures not be disclosed due to company policy. Nike remains the office’s core client, but recent additions include Audi and Ikea. The office has also taken on branding assignments from Shiseido and Spotify, and is increasing the amount of work it does in Korea, which Rowe said could grow to represent 25% of total business next year.
Fisher, who takes over from Rowe today, has been at W+K 12 years, including two spent in Brazil, where he pitched and led work for Nike in the runup to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Rowe said the approach of Tokyo 2020 made now a good time for the leadership transition.
W+K Tokyo does not currently work with Olympic sponsors, but Fisher said the Olympics presented exciting opportunities nonetheless. “The next six months are when companies are going to decide, ‘are we going to do something or not?’,” he said. “In my experience of witnessing the Olympics and World Cup about to arrive in Brazil, multinationals start to think, ‘we need to have a presence in that market whether we’re a sponsor or not’.” He said the year leading up to the event and the six months after it would be crucial for brands, including non-sponsors.
Fisher does not have experience working in Japan but worked on W+K’s Honda account soon after joining the agency in London, which he says fueled an interest in the country and its culture. Like many western entrants to the market, he is attracted to the Japanese sense of aesthetics, craft and design. “I’m not talking about advertising. Around you, everything’s been thought about much more than in other places and I’m intrigued to understand that and the design philosophy that goes into things,” he said.
Asked about his own philosophy to work and leadership, Fisher said he was a “big believer” in W+K’s ‘Walk in stupid’ mantra, which is similar to the Zen principle of ‘beginner’s mind’. “Just because I’m coming in as the MD doesn’t mean I have all the answers, he said. “Being inquisitive is the biggest thing. To keep being inquisitive and to keep questioning yourself.”
He added: “I don’t really care about titles or hierarchy. The work is the most important thing… My remit hasn’t been to come in and grow the business. My remit is to come in and do amazing work. The best way to that is by collaborating, by giving them space to grow and flourish and bringing in some different ways of doing things.”
In London, Fisher led W+K’s Kennedys programme, which is a means of bringing young talent from different walks of life into the agency. He also led new ventures, which included experimental product development. “It was very hard but very interesting and we were just trying to learn,” he said. “If we build a product, what do we learn from that? We’re in the process of getting a product to market at the moment. How do you get copyright, how to you build hardware and software—all that kind of stuff—then how do you market it and build and nurture a community?”
He said both programmes were important as a means of understanding how to bring the brightest and most creative people into the industry and how to keep them engaged. “For anyone under the age of 23, the pool isn’t ‘who are the other agencies I’m going to work at’, the pool is ‘what startup should I work for? Should I work for Google or Facebook? Here, it might be between us or Teamlab, for example.”
Rowe said where W+K was seen as relatively unstable in Japan, business expansion has made it easier to recruit people. The agency has also made a commitment to improving work-life balance, and has managed to reduce overtime by almost 50% over the past four years, he said.
“We’re getting more out of people in terms of quality and I think productivity has gone up, but in fewer hours… You don’t have to ride the backs of your employees to grow your business and do great work. We’ve been able to do both at the same time and that hasn’t always been the case at Wieden in Tokyo.”
Female applicants to the Kennedys programme increased to just under 50% this year from 20% the previous year as a result of using female copywriters for the recruitment materials, targeting women more directly, and “just trying to make the whole process a bit more approachable and inviting”.
At the same time, W+K has acknowledged that a growing number of people in Japan now prefer to work independently, or at least on a small scale. “I think the most interesting work is being done by individuals and freelancers, small teams of two, three or four,” Rowe said, giving Watson Crick, a local independent, as an example of one such company he found interesting, along with the better-known Party, which is “still small but really sincere and wanting to do great work”.
“Talented people want to work on their own terms,” he concluded.