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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Masako Okamura
Masako Okamura

masako newinside Masako OkamuraCreative Director
Dentsu, Tokyo


A good friend of mine always says that “Living in Tokyo is the closest you’ll to get to living on another planet”.

While the accuracy of that statement is debatable, it made me realize that IHAVEANIDEA’s considerable interview vault had yet to include someone from the land of the rising sun.

Masako is the first female Creative Director at advertising giant Dentsu and one of the most recognizable faces in the Japanese ad industry. When her company wanted to teach the world about the diversity of the Asian advertising scene at last summer’s Cannes Lions Festival, they choose her to represent her country alongside China’s Carol Lam and Thailand’s Jureeporn Thaidumrong. She’s a regular feature on the award show circuit, having sat numerous times on the One Show, Clio, ADC and Cannes juries, and has recieved quite the collection of local and international accolades for her work.  When she’s not busy making commercials for the likes of Toyota, Coca-Cola or Thai Airways, Masako gives lectures at the local university.

IHAVEANIDEA dusts off the old space suit and makes the long journey to Tokyo to hear about her career and learn a thing or two about the Japanese ad industry.

IHAVEANIDEA: When and how did you decide you didn’t want to pursue your law studies and would rather embark on a career making ads instead?

Masako: I kept this a secret for a very long time. It only came out a few months ago actually, and even my own colleagues didn’t know about this fact.

You need some background about the Japanese employment system first. It’s a little bit different from other countries’ as most companies only hire graduate students and then train them with their corporate culture. So as you can imagine, job interviews are kind of a big deal! It’s a movement among students and everybody goes at the same time.

Dentsu was really popular among students but I didn’t know anything about them at the time, and was very curious to understand why. So I did some research and it looked to me like a job where you could touch people’s hearts with other people’s money. I was really interested in that system! They were going to pay us to come up with ideas. It sounded amazing. I became very serious about entering this company, and if you have a strong will, you can do everything. So I went to interview there. The queue on interview day circled around the building. I was astonished and I couldn’t wait to find out what it was all about.

“I caught hell from my boss … and had to write a letter of apology”

The Equal Employment Opportunities law had just been installed a few years before that, and Dentsu, and all other Japanese companies opened their gates to female students, so it was the right time for me to graduate I guess.

Now back to the reason why I wanted to be a lawyer!

I’ve always been very good at solving other people’s problems, ever since I was a kid. Ever since kindergarden actually. Everybody, including my teacher would tell me their problems and I’d help them figure out the answers. I’m a very easy person to speak to. I don’t know why, but everybody always felt comfortable asking me for advice. So I thought that I might choose something like for my future and went to the law department in university. It was also one of the most difficult programs to enter so my parents were happy about that. At the time I was fascinated by some TV shows like Ally McBeal, so that influenced me as well (laughs).
But what really turned me off law was that some lawyers I spoke to, told me most women usually work on divorce problems and other smaller issues. I was interested in the bigger stuff and it was made clear I wouldn’t be handling that. Keep in mind this was 20 years ago; it was a very closed society at the time.

On the contrary, the Dentsu employee I spoke to told me they didn’t have many female employees, and no female creatives but they were looking to change that. So it was almost the same conditions, but they were very welcoming and open to change. So I thought it would be the best decision for me, and I decided my life that way.

A few years ago my parents asked me if I was happy doing what I am doing right now or if I regretted not having pursued the lawyer thing, and told them I was very happy. I have no regrets at all. It’s a tough job, but it’s very fun also. Plus, lawyers go on very few business trips. No Cannes. No Las Vegas (for LIA judging). No anything! (laughs)

But I guess if I had to make a bridge between being a lawyer and a creative, it would be that both our jobs are about giving our clients some kind of solution to make them happy.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.
IHAVEANIDEA: You’ve worked at one agency for your whole career which you’ll admit is quite rare for most creatives. Is there anything that would make you jump ships?

Masako: In Japan people tend to stick around for a long time. Although I have to say that has changed in the last couple of years, you see people doing more of the proverbial agency hopping. Normally we have a life-long employee system. I am very happy to be here, I think Dentsu is the best place to work at in Japan.

IHAVEANIDEA: Would you like to work outside Japan?

Masako: I only recently started to pay attention to what’s going on in other countries to be honest, so if I have a chance to work overseas I might move, but I am not sure. I am a very latecomer to the international market, and I am also a very passive person actually. My life is a life of reaction, so I am not sure if it’s something I would go after.

IHAVEANIDEA: I’ve heard there’re 800 odd creatives working at Dentsu, is that true?

Masako: Yes. 800 in Tokyo. I am one of the creative directors and right now I have 50-60 people in my team as I handle 6 or 7 accounts. But remember that we have more than a thousand clients. Some of them are smaller obviously, but we do have a lot!

thaiairways 300x212 Masako Okamura
IHAVEANIDEA: Another thing you guys are kind of famous for is celebrity endorsement and the huge cachet western stars command. How do you think it became such a common thing to use?

Masako: I think it cannot be helped because we have so many products. For example, if you go into any convenience store, you can find around 40 to 50 different kinds of green tea. It’s insane. So the most effective way to get your product noticed is to use a celebrity endorser. The fact that most Japanese TVC are only 15 seconds also doesn’t help, so it’s very important to recognize the product quickly.

I don’t like endorsements so much to be honest with you, although I do like celebrities (laughs). In most cases I don’t use it, but there was this instance where a female actress that was assigned to a brand wanted me as Creative Director so I had to do it. Maybe she felt more comfortable because I am also a woman.

“it looked to me like a job where you could touch people’s hearts with other people’s money”

IHAVEANIDEA: Rumours going around the internet have you as a big big Tottenham Hotspur fan.is that true?

Masako: Not Tottenham, Chelsea! I really like Frank Lampard.

Actually my love for football is tied into my advertising career. I first took interest in it because of Michel Platini.

When I was freshman at Dentsu and working in the PR division, one of our clients, the Drug Addict Prevention Center, wanted to organise a new PR event. I proposed they’d invite Platini to Japan to talk about drugs’ dreadful consequences with young Japanse people. I knew he had his own rehab clinic in France, so I thought he’d be a great fit. I negotiated with him myself via phone and fax (no email at that time). I had to be reckless, but fortunately both him and the client agreed to do it.  When he came to Japan I attended him for the whole week and he kept telling me how football was great and even whispered which games and goals are worth watching (Top secret!). He also took the RAI uno, Italian TV team with him to make his own program featuring Japanese martial arts like Judo and Kendo, while he was here.  I had to organize everything for him, so as you can imagine, I didn’t get much sleep during those times!

“our jobs are about giving our clients some kind of solution to make them happy.”

When he went back to France, I watched videos with his direction many many times and became fascinated with the sport. I had my Royal road and a short cut to a football manager’s job. If I were a man!  A few months later I was asked to promote billboards at his retirement match in Nancy, France to Japanese companies and sell broadcast rights to Japanese TV stations.  I was just a freshman and that Dentsu has a bunch of specialists for sports business, so I tried to ask the professional in my agency to do what was very much a “mission impossible” instead of me.  But Platini said “No, definitely no. The reason I asked you is because I believe in you.  If you don’t, I will ask another agency in Japan”. So I set my teeth and I made it with many other people’s help and advice.  Eventually Platini was very happy with the result and my agency got a lot of profit, but I caught hell from my boss (He came very close to firing me) and had to write a letter of apology. I was – still am – so reckless. Since then, I’ve done tons of TVCs with football scenes and also done spots for the World Cup.  Some people say “Masako’s work is easy to recognize because there’re lots of football scenes”.

IHAVEANIDEA: Can you make parallels between the job you have and that of a footballer or a manager?

Masako: I think how you manage and encourage your team is quite similar. When I am stuck on a problem I always read great football players’ books for inspiration and courage. I also like to watch great goals compilations before a big pitch, it helps put me in the right mood to win! My favourite goal is Johan Cruyff’s goal in 1974.

IHAVEANIDEA: Japan always does very very well at all the award shows especially in the mobile and interactive categories. Could you tell us about some of the trends you can see coming in these mediums?

Masako: You’ve got to understand the mobile market is quite different in Japan. Most people watch dramas and TV series on their phones so there’s a bigger need to make ads for that medium. It’s a very important medium for us.

We have a different media consumption than most countries. For example, instead of  YouTube, Japanese people prefer a site called NicoNico Douga.  It’s also a video sharing site, but it allows comments to be overlaid directly into the video. Viewers can comment directly as things happen in the video. I don’t think it’d be very popular in other countries since people tend not to like other peoples’ comments, but Japanese people like those kinds of interactions.

Sites like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter also aren’t so popular. I’m on Facebook, but I noticed that a lot of Japanese people don’t like to register on there. The main reason is that our English tends not to be the best. We also have a very typical Japanese social network called Mixi that’s kind of a mixture of Facebook and Twitter. Most people in their 20s and 30s use it.

IHAVEANIDEA: Is there a campaign that really caught your eyes in the last year or so? Something that made you really jealous?

Masako: The Great Schlep from Droga5. I was very interested in the presidential campaign in the US as I’ve already worked for the former prime minister here. I was very curious to see how the campaign worked. The idea to get kids to convince their grand parents to vote for Obama was brilliant, and it was pretty cheap too. Very little money, and great results.

“We have a different media consumption than most countries.”

IHAVEANIDEA: What about some campaigns from Japan?

Masako:  The Melody Road, a safety awareness campaign for Dunlop Tires. To prevent drivers from speeding, they made a road that plays a nice melody when the car goes past 40 km/h on a long and winding road in the Nagano prefecture.  By making a groove on the road, a melody will be played by the friction. It was a joint campaign between the Agency, Dunlop, the road construction company and the local town.

I was also impressed by the Love Distance campaign for condoms that won this a PR Lion and a Film Lion in Cannes this year.

IHAVEANIDEA: Who do you think is going to win the Premier League? What about the Champions League?

Masako: For the Premier League, Chelsea definitely . For the Champions League, if Cristiano Ronaldo gets on well with his teammates, I’d have to say Real Madrid.

Interview by:

Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS
IHAVEANIDEA


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