The fifth-largest advertising organization in the world is Tokyo's Dentsu. Its gross profit of more than $2 billion is largely generated in Japan.
Although Dentsu politely declines to name its clients, a little research reveals that its biggest accounts include Shiseido cosmetics and Toyota.
Masako Okamura was one of Dentsu's first female creative directors.
After starting out in the PR division, Okamura became a copywriter in 1992. She expresses pride in having worked with Akira Odagiri, considered one of the masters of Japanese creativity, who now heads the creative department at Ogilvy & Mather in Japan.
Okamura was promoted to creative director in 2001, making her one of the most senior members of Dentsu's approximately 800 creative staff.
Okamura's working day begins at around nine and can end at any time from four in the afternoon to four in the morning, "as is the case for most creative people around the world," she says. Although the agency's creative directors are assigned identical booths, she has a view of Mount Fuji from her desk.
"On the desk are all kinds of funny toys from around the world, as well as various stock images sent from overseas production companies, so the younger staff members often drop by to see if anything inspires them," she says.
The creative process is a team effort that requires regular brain-storming sessions: "In my team, the one hard-and-fast rule is that meetings are limited to 90 minutes."
Okamura acknowledges that some aspects of Japanese advertising may appear to be barriers to creativity—for instance, the reliance on celebrities. Yet she says there are ways of being creative within these constraints.
For example, in the middle of a recent standup comedy boom, a campaign for Shiseido's male grooming range Uno featured 50 hip young comedians in individual 15-second spots—a feat that got the brand into the Guinness Book of Records.
As for the brevity of Japanese spots, she points out, "Young people in their teens and twenties can grasp a visual idea in a few seconds. This kind of advertising works very well on mobile phones. It is now being adopted in the West, but it was pioneered here."
But as the drive toward creativity continues, an alternative approach is emerging. A 2005 spot called "Husky Girl" might be considered something of a pivotal work. The ad promoting the giant Ajinomoto Stadium in the suburbs of Tokyo was no less than 90 seconds long. It featured a series of beautiful young girls—all with the voices of chain-smoking truck drivers. The payoff shot revealed that their vocal chords had been shredded by all the shouting and cheering they'd been doing at the stadium's football matches. The gently humorous ad hinted at a new direction in Japanese advertising.
While longer spots and story-driven ads are beginning to make an appearance, the traditional spots that survive are greatly appreciated. Okamura observes that in other markets consumers might be suspicious of advertising, but the Japanese are fans of it. There's even a magazine devoted to the subject called CM Now (CM being an abbreviation for "Commercial").
Japanese society is changing—and consumer responses along with it. "After the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1990s, the modes of behavior that defined men and women became blurred. Men have become less career-obsessed, more spiritual. And women have become more independent. They have their own money and spend it more freely. So women in advertising are portrayed as independent, both emotionally and economically."
Viewing habits in Japan are also changing. "Over the last ten years, I think there has been a decrease in the tendency to watch TV every evening," says Okamura. "But that's because TV has changed. Now you can watch TV on your laptop or on your mobile phone. So we have seen a shift of commercials to these new media."
And Japanese consumers don't feel hunted by the agencies, Okamura insists. "Advertising is a form of culture among the younger generation. Today they barely differentiate it from any other form of entertainment."
Note: Article adapted from the book Adland: A Global History of Advertising (Kogan Page, 2007).