Foreigners in Business: Inside Japan’s advertising industry

December 28th, 2010By Category: Work Tips

Japan’s TV and print ads are something we continue to look at from time-to-time. Advertising is always an interesting way to learn about a society and culture. What works in one country may not work in another. Successful branding is a challenge that can make or break companies – which makes the stakes high for advertising agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon Tokyo KK.

Part of the worldwide Publicis group, SSF combines local creativity with global resources in a uniquely entrepreneurial Tokyo-based advertising agency. Or as CEO Phillip Rubel puts it, SSF helps clients outsmart rather than outspend their rivals. The company has created successful campaigns for clients such as Reebok, Toyota, Lexus, Cartier, Lancome, Dyson, Citibank, Mattel, Novartis, Sony and Starbucks, among others.

Born in Toronto, Rubel originally planned on becoming a cultural anthropologist. “I wanted to be the Indiana Jones of anthropology,” he says. “But my professor explained the realities of academia and university life to me and made it sound so unattractive that I went into business instead. Fortunately, a significant part of my job is to influence culture rather than merely observe it, so my intellectual interests are more than satisfied.”

After a career in Canada that included marketing with Schering-Plough, advertising with Y&R and leading his own agency, Rubel joined McCann-Erickson Japan, where he was a senior vice president and later again as chief operating officer. He joined D’Arcy as CEO and was soon charged with the responsibility of merging the offices of D’Arcy, Leo Burnett and part of Dentsu to form Beacon, becoming their first CEO. After a stint at Leo Burnett’s HQ in Chicago, Rubel returned to Japan and eventually co-founded Fallon. Seven years later he oversaw the merger with sibling agency Saatchi & Saatchi in mid-2009 to form Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon Tokyo.

GaijinPot, together with Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Rubel at SSF’s headquarters in Tokyo’s trendy Omotesando area to hear more.

How was 2010 for Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon?

It has been a challenging year, but better than 2009. It is still tough going because a lot of clients are unsure of their business and delayed giving the go ahead on developing campaigns until the latter half of the year. On the other hand, tough economic times provide an opportunity for our kind of agency, as our ideas are designed to amplify the effectiveness and efficiency of our clients’ advertising budgets. So while budgets are tighter, more clients are reaching out to us because they have to do more with less.

What are your strengths?

As far as Japan goes, Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon is quite unusual compared to our competitors. The reason is we are the only foreign agency in Japan that exists without depending on big multinational network clients to keep us here. In a lot of other cases, if their global network clients went away, the agency would really have no reason to be in Japan. Of course, we are delighted to work with our network-affiliated clients, but the majority of our clients are locally won. Both domestic and international clients turn to us because we do have deep local roots, yet operate utilizing the best global practices.

Another factor is that we’re not dependent on media, compared to the big domestic agencies and some other international agencies here. They make the majority of their revenue by taking a commission from their clients’ media expenditures such as television, print, transit, etc. We are media neutral and usually don’t generate revenue based on media commission. Clients pay us a fee for our time and effort in developing their campaigns.

What is your approach to branding?

We help our clients outsmart the competition rather than outspend them and we aim to fill the world with Lovemarks rather than mere brands. These are our two powerful creative philosophies.

What do you mean by Lovemarks?

That means whatever transforms a brand into something consumers love beyond reason. A few years ago, Saatchi & Saatchi looked closely at the question: What makes some brands inspirational, while others struggle? Lovemarks reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without. We look at brands as being dead because there are so many brands nowadays and they are all saying, doing and offering pretty much the same thing. It’s very hard for products to differentiate themselves. We feel they have to go to the next step, which is the emotional reasons, beyond logic, why you would choose a particular product or service over another. Time and time again, all the research shows it is not about a logical benefit that motivates people to commit to a product or service. It’s an emotional one. And we call this emotional approach to marketing Lovemarks.

For example, we all have a particular camera, mobile phone, car, holiday destination or even a soap that we love beyond reason. The benefits of a brand becoming a Lovemark are very rewarding to the marketer: consumers are willing to pay a premium for it, they are loyal to it, and perhaps most importantly, they become advocates for it by telling their friends and family that they should try it too.

We refer to the marketing world of today as the participation economy. In the past, marketers had one single message to tell everyone. And then along came integrated communications and companies had many messages to surround an individual with. But they all still came from that one company. Nowadays, anyone with a computer or mobile phone can have a say about a product and potentially be heard by many. That’s the participation economy. Companies don’t exclusively own their brands any more. You have to let consumers play with the products, make them their own, have a point of view. They are going to, whether a company likes it or not. So why not help them and work with them so they become advocates for your product.

Do Western advertising techniques like comparative tests work in Japan?

Actually, the industry here tends to shy away from directly comparing. It seems to be okay to say you’re “number 1” for just about anything, but direct comparisons are generally frowned upon by the media. However, we have actually done comparative test campaigns before, but we had to be very persuasive with television stations to run the ads.

Do cultural factors play a part in branding in Japan?

We think so. Of course, every market has its own nuances, and the best marketing methodology, whether it is a logo or television ad or a website, has to be rooted in the local culture or at least compatible with it. The avoidance of direct comparisons yet plethora of “#1 claims” is a good example of a cultural sensitivity within Japan.

Sometimes I see a TV commercial or billboard poster and it can be hard to know what product is being advertised.

Most TV commercials are 15 seconds and in 15 seconds, it is very hard to get a sophisticated message out or tell an engaging story. I think the original idea of the 15-second ad was just to make enough noise so consumers will remember who you are. But thankfully, marketing and branding are evolving in Japan from a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) of a product just being remembered to it actually being known for something meaningful to the intended target audience – which is our approach. It is not about how many people remember your name but what they associate with it and how your product can build a relationship with consumers.

What do you think of the way celebrities are used in ads?

Frankly, I hate that kind of communication. I think it is an easy way out for agencies and their clients and not necessarily the best for the brand. Of course, there is nothing wrong with using a celebrity if they properly represent or have the right involvement with what it is you are marketing. But just having a celebrity hock a product based on their fame is largely meaningless to consumers who are getting wiser and wiser.

What trends do you see in advertising in future?

The Internet and social media are obviously becoming huge players. Mobile phones are going to offer the biggest growth opportunity. The key word is convergence. New technology is simply the enabler for people to physically do what social media and other forms of interactive communication are offering. The new technology, whether hardware or software, needs to have three traits: Be simple and intuitive to use; seamlessly connect to the other hardware and software bits that are important to each of us; and add value rather than waste time.

So for us, as it relates to technology convergence in the participation economy, advertising needs to change how it measures its success. In a world where everyone can interact with others anytime, anywhere on a multiple of screens, I would sum it up by saying it is all about return on involvement rather than merely return on investment.

Which ad campaigns in Japan have impressed you?

Well, I guess you are referring to work aside from our own. I like campaigns that show some sort of unique insight and add a nice twist to it. I admire Nissan’s “teinenpi” (fuel efficient) campaign that explained their approach to sustainability. Nissan used characters from the Japanese animation series “Heidi” to create a parody in which the company attempts to explain exactly what it means to be fuel-efficient. The little girl is asking everybody what is fuel efficiency and nobody seems to be able to tell her.

What is it like working at Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon?

Even though there is a lot of pressure to come up with the next big idea and to sometimes make near impossible deadlines, we maintain a very creative and very friendly environment. We expect everybody to contribute to the strategic and creative process regardless of their specific expertise or job title. And we try to have a little fun along the way. For example, we’ve become rather well known among clients, vendors and friends of the agency for our BBQ parties. What started as an internal agency “staff only” informal barbeque party early on, has evolved into quite the yearly event. Each year our barbeques have gotten larger and more elaborate. In fact, over the years as we have grown and moved offices, it has always been necessary for us to ensure the new office space has a patio or deck.

Tell us about your team.

Right now, we have about 50 people. Most of our team come from other ad agencies or creative or strategic consulting related companies. They come here because they recognize that we do things differently. I remember interviewing somebody a few years ago who came from a big agency. I asked him why he wanted to leave and come here. He said: “At the agency I’m with now, I have been playing as part of a symphony. Now I want to play jazz.” What a great line.

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GaijinPot is an online community for foreigners living in Japan, providing information on everything you need to know about enjoying life here, from finding a job and accommodation to having fun.

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