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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Rei Inamoto
Rei Inamoto

newrei Rei InamotoGlobal Creative Director

Hey advertising creatives! Allow me to let you all in on a little secret about the future of the ad business. Are you ready? Here it goes…

The future is digital.

Wait a second. Didn’t Brett already say those exact words a few interviews back? Maybe so, but it bears repeating when you’re sitting down across from Rei Inamoto, the Global Creative Director for AKQA. After all, he’s one of the most heavily awarded Creative Directors in the digital field, with more Lions, Clios and Pencils than you can shake a mousepad at, including a rare Cannes Lions Titanium Grand Prix.

But for a guy whose life revolves around the more colorful side of ones and zeroes (with more zeroes on his paycheck than you or I) Rei is a very warm down to earth kinda guy. Very casual, very laid back, very polite, very modest, you’d have no idea that this man is one of the most powerful movers and shakers in the digital creative world. How many Worldwide CCOs routinely give out hugs when they see you?

So it was a lot of fun to chat with Rei about his career, his role AKQA, his thoughts on where this whole digital revolution is taking us, and even how not having English as his first language helped him create better work.

ihavenidea: With most of our interviews here at IHAVEANIDEA, we like to start at the very beginning, to see how much their early years have made them who they are today. You are Japanese, born and raised in the Land of the Rising Sun. How much of that culture has guided you to the top of your career?

Rei: That’s a very good question, one that I don’t typically get asked. I grew up in Japan, but I went to high school in Switzerland and then came to the US for college.I went back to Japan a little bit for work, and then came back to the US to really launch my creative career. I think the fact that I got to live in different places — Japan, Europe, and the U.S. — it gave me a perspective that is independent of any one specific culture.So at heart I’m Japanese, but because I’ve lived in different countries, I think that I can appreciate different people’s perspectives and opinions.If you were brought up in one culture or in one place, I don’t think that your perspective gets as broad as it could be, not just with work, but with life. It’s a different way of looking at things, and it helps me approach my work in a way that is much more broad.The question is also interesting because one thing that has helped me, maybe consciously or subconsciously, is the fact that I’m not a native English speaker.English is something that I had to learn.Your first language isn’t English, correct?

IHAVEANIDEA: (laughs) Well, I’m Costa Rican so mi primer lenguaje fue el español.

Rei: For me, the difference between Japanese and English is much bigger than English and Spanish or Western Language. Ten or fifteen years ago I really started learning the language. I felt I was at a disadvantage because I didn’t have the language and vocabulary skills to verbally articulate what I wanted to say. I don’t know if it was a conscious thing that or not, but I started to think “well, I don’t have the kind of vocabulary that a native speaker would have, but if I can explain myself in as simple terms as possible, everybody else whose English is better than mine will be able to understand.” I took my disadvantage which was the lack of English skill and turn it to my advantage which is to explain something simply, something that is absolutely crucial in creative communications. Even today I feel like I’m still learning the language.

IHAVEANIDEA: And now today you’re living in San Francisco. How has that culture affected you, in comparison to your years in New York?

Rei: I was in New York between 1996 and 2005 and I moved here in 2005.Moving to San Francisco has forced me to have a balance between work and life.I find that when I travel back to New York now, I appreciate that balance, and the ability to think about life both inside and outside of work.Moving to San Francisco, I find myself decreasing the hours that I work, but that mean that I’m working less, but rather more efficiently and intensely.Working in New York, I was working longer hours, but that doesn’t mean that I was working as effectively.I’m busier now with the things I have to do, but I think I’m handling more things in less time.


IHAVEANIDEA: More things? (laughs) I always thought the big Global Creative Directors had fewer things on their plate! Actually when we featured AKQA in an agency profile, we heard that you like to personally chat with everyone in the creative department every few weeks…

Rei: I do try to make a point of it, making my rounds in the morning or during lunch.I like to just simply say hello to people, even if we’re not talking about work or something that they’re working on. I just enjoy having that personal touch.To be honest, it’s not an easy task. I may have relapsed from time to time.There’s a guy who had a graph online and he kept track of each time that I visited him. “October 26th, 10:28 AM”, that kind of thing. I’m still trying to look good on his graph.

IHAVEANIDEA: What about the creative departments in other offices? You must be an Air Miles billionaire.

Rei: Personally I don´t travel that much.My CEO travels more than anyone I directly work with. His job is to fly around to the different offices every week. Last week we was here, the week before that he was in London, the week before that he was in New York, before that in Asia. For me, I tend to stay in San Francisco, with more indirect responsibilities in Shanghai, DC and New York.

IHAVEANIDEA: Ah, a hands-off approach to the other offices, huh? How would you describe all of the offices? Let me put it a different way. Ff you were the father, and they were all little kids, how would they describe them?

Rei: (laughs) That’s a very interesting way to put things metaphorically.Let’s see, we have London, Amsterdam, DC., New York, San Francisco, and Shanghai, and I don’t necessarily see me as the father, but rather London and San Francisco as the parents. Don’t ask me which one is mommy and which is daddy, but I think DC is the oldest brother, New York is the second oldest, but kind of the wild kid.And then Shanghai and Amsterdam are the youngest kids.

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nikewomenbutton Rei Inamoto ignitebutton Rei Inamoto

IHAVEANIDEA: So I guess that makes you a grandfather! What are some of the biggest day-to-day challenges in keeping the family in line?

Rei: Financially speaking, this has been one of the worst years for the world outside, but for us, it’s been the best year in history for us, on the financial side and from the work perspective.The volume of work is tremendous of course, but due to the same volume of work, we have to have the right people and the right volume of people. That’s been a constant challenge for me, to make sure that we’re getting the right people in for the job.So I’d say recruiting is my biggest challenge.



IHAVEANIDEA: How do you recruit? Imagine that there was a Creative Director that you wanted to hire for AKQA, and he had another job offer at another digital shop. What would you say to convince him that AKQA was a great choice?

Rei: I think that the answer depends on the other shop the candidate is considering.What’s unique about us is that although we’re not a traditional ad agency, the perception of AKQA is that we are purely and mainly digital. That isn’t necessarily an inaccurate thing to think about, but we’re not like, say, RGA doing huge enterprise websites and those kinds of things. So if the candidate is comparing AKQA versus RGA, that might be one example I’d give.But why should they work at AKQA versus any other ad agency, I would say that I want people to do the best work of their career while they’re at AKQA, and that’s why they should come here.

IHAVEANIDEA: Are there any trends you’re seeing in terms of the people who want to work at AKQA? Do they come in with a specific kind of portfolio?

“If they’re not living in a digital age, how can they survive as a professional individual in a time that’s becoming increasingly digital?”

Rei: I would say about 99 percent of the people have a website or some kind of online presence where they show us their work.It doesn’t mean that they’re doing digital work. They might have print or TV or other non-digital things, but they’re nearly all in an online portfolio.If they don’t have an online portfolio, it kind of takes them out of the running. I mean if they’re not living in a digital age, how can they survive as a professional individual in a time that’s becoming increasingly digital?

In terms of the actual people behind the portfolios, what’s interesting is that I´m seeing a lot more traditional people wanting to work at digital shops. We’re also seeing a lot more senior people looking to expand into digital. Maybe they see that the work that got them to the level they are at today might not help them survive in the business five years from now.

As far as student portfolios are concerned, I’m often surprised to see so many print-tasks. I have two schools of thought on this. One, the ad schools use print ads as a way to teach concepting ads, to come up with ideas that tell a simple message. and that’s great. But I also feel that the students are being taught by very traditional advertising creatives who never really worked in a digital space, so they end up teaching print advertising. And print advertising, well it’s not going to die soon, but it’s becoming more and more irrelevant, day by day.

IHAVEANIDEA: But that traditional stuff isn’t going away completely. Do you ever look at yourselves and see that you have ten art directors who started out in traditional advertising and think “hey, we have the people to do more than just digital work.” Do clients ever ask you to do the print work since you did such a great job doing the digital work?

“It was done with a mere one percent of the budget normally allotted to new automobile launches. 1% of the budget and it might be the biggest launch they’ve done in years.”

Rei: Not too long ago, on both the agency side and the client side, digital seemed to be a mere afterthought when it came to a campaign. Nowadays, they’re realizing the power of not just making digital a major component of a campaign, but rather the main component. They could spend millions of dollars on a TV spot and tens of millions on media to spread that spot around, but at the end of the day, how it affects and engages with consumers is questionable.

One of the most recent things we’ve done was for Volkswagen, launching the new GTI. No TV, no print, not even a microsite. It was launched completely on 3G mobile devices, predominately the iPhone. We had a game called Real Racing GTI, and just by playing it, you could win one of six real GTIs. It became the number one free app in the US, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland the week it was launched. And it was done with a mere one percent of the budget normally allotted to new automobile launches. 1% of the budget and it might be the biggest launch they’ve done in years.


IHAVEANIDEA: The client must be happy! But do they understand all of this? Do you think the clients are more ahead of the game than the agencies? It must’ve taken some convincing to do something like that.

“It’s a tricky situation because agencies, whether they are digital or not, want to own the relationship with the client as much as possible.”

Rei: Yeah, it took quite a bit of convincing to do this, but fortunately they are a client who is brave enough and gutsy enough to do something cool like this.

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IHAVEANIDEA: When you guys share accounts with a big, traditional agency, what are the relationships like? You know, all of those traditional shops want to play interactive too, but is it a strain to work with them?

Rei: It’s a tricky situation because agencies, whether they are digital or not, want to own the relationship with the client as much as possible. I would say that this is especially of traditional agencies because they’re used to owning an exclusive relationship with a client for a long, long time.For decades, traditional agencies were the only agencies that existed. Of course that has changed, and now it’s possible for a digital agency to be given an entire account, instead of working with a traditional agency. As an example, there’s a company called Autodesk the software company that makes 3D studio Max and AutoCAD. They are a premiere 3D and 2D design engineering software company.A few  months ago, they used to work with a traditional ad agency, and they said ¨We are going to try something different.¨ They talked to different agencies, both traditional and digital, to see what they could come up with. They narrowed their search down to three agencies: two traditional agencies and us as the so called ¨digital agency¨. Long story short, we ended up winning the entire pitch, and we are now Autodesk’s agency of record, not just for  digital advertising but also for offline stuff, whether it’s print or TV. (laughs) I guess that answers your earlier question about what to do with the traditional creatives on staff.

IHAVEANIDEA: With all of the changes that are going on with the advertising industry, is there one particular change that scares you?

Rei: I recently went to a conference that had a lot of production companies in attendance, as well as a lot of traditional agencies. They all see the switch to digital, and they’re dying to do more work in it, but as technology improves, costs go down, which in turn means budgets go down. If a company does something for a hundred thousand dollars today, tomorrow there’s someone whose going to do it for fifty thousand dollars, and the day after that there’s somebody else that will do it for ten thousand dollars. Before you know it, you’re out of business because you just can’t compete with price, especially when it comes to production. That is a very scary thought in the digital world.

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IHAVEANIDEA: Where do you see technology going two years from now? I know, I know, it’s a long time in a digital world.

Rei: Hmmm… two years from now, I think the notion that the web is something you access on your computer is going to disappear. There’s going to be something that will be completely platform independent, that’s going to be accessible from anywhere, on any device which will impact what we do on a day to day basis. (laughs) I need to think about that one, because if I have a good idea, I should launch a company.  

Interview by:

ignaciocreditpic Rei Inamoto

Ignacio Oreamuno
El Presidente

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