What are Japan’s top creators thinking? It’s a question that anyone considering working in Japan should ask. But for me, just now, it has a narrower focus. I have embarked on a research project to examine the social networks that link members of the teams whose ads appear in the TCC Nenkan (Tokyo Copywriters Club Annual). Social network analysis software shows me who are the most connected creatives at the top of the Tokyo advertising world, but who, after all, are these people? What are they thinking? That is what I want to know.
It helps a lot that many of the winners are prolific authors and are also frequently interviewed for pieces that appear in the Japanese advertising industry trade press. And since I have to read this stuff anyway, I thought I might share what I find with you. Your comments and questions will help me understand what I’m reading and shape the interviews that I hope to conduct with these, some of Japanese advertising’s most famous figures.
Consider, for example, Maki Jun. Born in 1948, he grew up in what was then a small resort down on the seacoast near Nagoya, the largest city in Aichi Prefecture, the home of Toyota. Having a picture he drew in first grade published in a local newspaper fueled an early interest in art. When, however, he got to Keio University, his advisor suggested that he do economics instead. Meanwhile, he had been a beach boy, a trombone player, and the graduate of a private school run by Christian missionaries, where he studied more English than was usual for a Japanese high school student. After graduating from Keio (think Yale in American terms), he was hired as a copywriter by Hakuhodo, Japan’s second largest advertising agency. After making his bones there, he went freelance, which, he says, mainly meant that he has twice as much office space as he would have staying with the big agency.
Maki belongs to a generation of copywriters who learned their craft in print media. The ads that started him on his way to becoming a Tokyo advertising legend were destination campaigns for All Nippon Airways (ANA), one for Okinawa and one for Hokkaido. Both involve wordplay that is far more striking in the Japanese original than in English translation. The ad for Okinawa shows a teenage girl, tanned, in a bikini. Her features suggest that she is a “half,” half Japanese and half foreign, a combination much in vogue at the time this ad was produced. Maki’s headline reads “Toast girl is almost ready.” The play is on a common expression that means literally “The toast is almost ready.” Warmth, toasting/tanning, a delicious experience, it’s all there.
The ad for Hokkaido plays on the name of Japan’s northernmost island and the spaciousness it offers in contrast to the crowded cities where most Japanese live. Hawaii may have a big island. Japan has “Dekkaido, Hokkaido,”i.e., “Huge island, Hokkaido.”
For another famous ad, Maki was asked to create a public service message for Suntory canned beer, to get people to dispose of the empty cans properly. The line he wrote reads, “Empty beer cans and broken love affairs, throw them in the nearest trash bin.”
Recently Maki has been involved in producing three new books, each a collection of chapters by other famous Tokyo creatives. The “A Bit Better” series includes A Bit Better Idea, A Bit Better Presentation, and A Bit Better Team. I will be taking much of what I write about in my next several essays from these books.
Currently I am reading A Bit Better Team. In the multiple introductions, four in all, we see the the serious play of a top creator at work. The first is titled “Team is ‘Te-amu.'” In it Maki begins by observing that the world is inundated with organizational theories. Most, however, fall into two broad categories, focused either on leadership or on human resources management. Both, however, tend to fall into familiar patterns that reflect military or bureaucratic origins. Neither captures well what it means to be a team. When he says that a team is “te-amu” (hands knit together), he evokes the image of hands gripping a baseball bat, each finger with its own job to do. But if they grip the bat properly, they may hit a home run.
The second introduction is entitled “Team is “Koshiki” (composed of individuals). Here the play is on “Soshiki,” the Japanese word for organization that means composed of groups. That kind of organization served Japan well in the postwar years when everyone pulled together to make Japan the world’s second largest economy. But now that innovation requires free spirits to co-operate without submerging their individuality, the advertising business may be a useful model for other Japanese industries. Assembling people with different skills to create something unprecedented is, after all, what advertising has been doing for a long time.
The third introduction is titled “Team is a clash of characters.” Effective teams are composed of strong-willed individuals with a lot of self-confidence and yes, indeed, they will clash. It is how that conflict is managed that will determine whether a team is truly creative.
Finally, then, the fourth introduction, “How to use this book.” There are Maki notes no recipes. The creators invited to contribute are precisely the kind of strong individuals an effective team requires, and each and every one has his or her own ideas. Each can be taken as a model, but none can be taken as the model. Brought together their ideas may suggest synergies. That, after all, is the essence of teamwork.