With a team of 800 creatives to manage and a long-dominant position in Japanese advertising to maintain, Dentsu Inc’s new CCO, Yasuharu Sasaki, has one of the creative world’s most challenging roles. L[A] talked to him about the role, creativity and how he rose to this position.
Digital is the most potent tool for creative people
L[A] Congratulations, Yasu, on your new role at Dentsu Inc., it must be both daunting and exciting to take over responsibility for the creative output of an agency that dominates Japanese advertising. How are you feeling about the new job?
YS The position of Chief Creative Officer (CCO) at Dentsu Inc. has a long history, and I feel it is a great honor as well as a lot of responsibility in taking on the role.
We are at a major turning point in the creative area worldwide. Amid all the changes in social conditions, with COVID-19, environmental issues, and international issues, the advertising creative area is undergoing more significant changes than the changes that occurred when traditional media shifted to digital media.Difficult issues have arisen in different areas, and I believe that we should demonstrate strong creativity in various areas and not just in advertising. When it’s difficult to bring about the right answers to problems, we need people who can come up with unexpected answers. Dentsu Tokyo aims to be an Integrated Growth Partner that helps not only the financial growth of clients, but also the improvement of people’s lives, the environment, and society, through creativity. I hope to drive the expansion and transformation of our creativity as much as possible. Dentsu Tokyo is a strong player in the Japanese advertising industry, but we are a challenger in the industry of providing creativity to areas other than advertising. Now that society needs high-level creativity, we must further expand our ideas, design, craft, implementation, and technology and innovation capabilities. Dentsu Tokyo has a diverse range of 6,500 talented people who belong to a single company, which is the most interesting aspect of all, we have film directors, genome researchers, food professionals and sports players. I love working with all of them, and there is a lot of trust in our work relationships. By mixing diverse capabilities, I believe we will continue to create inspiring and interesting work.
L[A] Could you tell us a little about the things that most influenced your early life, that helped shape your creativity and ambitions?
YS When I was a child, I would run around wild, on mountains, along riversides, and on the seashore. Back then, there were many forests in the suburbs of Tokyo. I loved going into the woods to find insects and plants. This childhood experience of immersing myself in nature also led me to become interested in natural science and technology, this then lead to an interest in manufacturing and innovation.
As an extension of my love for science, I encountered the Personal Computer when I was 10 years old. I was impressed by the fact that I could create anything including games, 3D spaces, or music, in the ‘box’ with my creativity. I came to feel even stronger that I wanted to get a job where I could make something, although I didn’t know anything about advertising creative jobs at that time.
L[A] We believe you had an early background in computer sciences before moving into the ad world, how did this transition come about? And given the importance of technology/digital in today’s marketing world, how important has that been to your career?
YS Now I feel that Computer Science and advertising world, both of which I liked, were actually connected. Because I could create anything with PCs, I took the path of Computer Science based on this belief. Then, when I was a college student, I encountered the Network, linking multiple computers rather than making things only within a single PC. That’s the ‘Internet,’ which was, at that time, not yet commercialized. I was significantly affected by this Internet. Thirty years ago, I thought that this computer network would create an unprecedented amount of fun by connecting people. And I wanted to pursue this from the perspective of the people who use the Internet, not from the technical aspect of the provider side. At that time, I had hardly seen entertainment on the Internet as it was mostly used for research, but I felt that there might be some kind of new ‘media’ here. That led me to join an advertising company rather than an electronics manufacturer or software company. After joining Dentsu, I really wanted to go into the media development department, but the company made me a copywriter. It was totally unexpected, but now I think this was a very nice coincidental transition that took me into the most interesting place. I feel ‘digital’ in today’s ad world is still superficial since I dug into Computer Science in the past. There are still many companies that use digital simply as an ‘advertising media’ to track and force users to watch it, to click it, to collect data without earning enough trust, and make you buy things. I think there are quite a few people who say they like advertising, but few people say they like digital advertising. There are many digital services offered by a variety of companies that are extremely convenient, but they are not enough to make the brand a ‘great favorite’. Digital is the most potent tool for creative people. What is important is the transformation of the essential relationships and links between users, brands, and society through digital. I am convinced that because I have learned Computer Science I can pursue creativity without forgetting its intrinsic value, not just using technologies superficially.
L[A] We believe your interests outside advertising include hybrid arts, digital architecture, game design, and interactive product design... and have called yourself a ‘bit of a geek’. How do these areas influence your work at Dentsu?
YS These interests have an impact on broadening my digital perspective, as mentioned above. If you have creativity and digital expertise, you can do anything, connecting people in an unprecedented way and moving people emotionally.
I always think that digital creativity can go far further. This is why I, as a ‘geek’, continue to develop, with interest and dedication, areas beyond the production of advertising expressions, such as hybrid arts and service designs.
L[A] From trainee copywriter at Dentsu in Tokyo, you moved to America and worked at IconNicholson, StrawberryFrog and then Dentsu America. Did you enjoy this time in the US? How influential do you think that period was in developing your style and the work you have produced since returning to Japan?
YS Recently, it has been changing a little, but in Japan, it is normal for people to stay, until they retire at the age of 60, at a company that they joined for the first time as a new graduate. This is the 27th year since I joined Dentsu as a new graduate. Many Japanese companies make investments in and nurture their employees for their career in the company. The experience of working for multiple companies in this US was given to me by Dentsu. They covered expenses and also let me remain at Dentsu when I came back. This experience allowed me to grow significantly.Advertising creativity, especially ideas for words and images, are based on the culture of the country in which they are created, and those expressions can only be understood in that country they are created. However, I realized that digital creativity, which gained attention almost simultaneously around the world, transcended cultural and linguistic barriers from the outset, and is equally acceptable in Japan or in the world as long as it is a good idea. That’s what made me confident.In addition, the experience of working in the diverse cultures of the US made me become aware of both good and bad points of my own country. I feel that the sense of my own creativity was sharpened through this experience of several years in the US.
L[A] What was the biggest cultural shock on arriving to work in the US?
YS Well, in the US, both in a good way and bad way, I feel that everyone is so relaxed (laughs). In Japan there are many cases where other people can guess what you need without saying anything, so we can live without raising our voices too much. In the US, you almost always have to take a stand and make your voice heard. But at the same time there is a lot of room for freedom and negotiation if it is not written in the rules. Since being in the US, I’ve become used to saying straight-forwardly what I think first, without being too shy, even in Japan.
L[A] This might seem trivial, but what aspect of Japanese life did you most miss while in the US? And was there anything from that period that you missed on your return to Japan?
YS Actually, I had thought that I would miss Japan very quickly, especially its food, but, in fact, if when I looked for ramen and sushi restaurants in New York, I found a lot of restaurants that served food of almost the same quality as Japan. So it wasn’t that tough. What was a little hard for me, however, was that I couldn’t read the ‘Weekly Manga Magazine,’ which I had bought twice a week in Japan. I’d still like to go back to the US and work. I can’t forget even now that a day in New York was so exciting for anyone in a creative career. It might have changed a bit with COVID-19, but I still miss New York so much.
L[A] From an outsider’s perspective, Japan seems a fascinating and perhaps unique mix of advanced, ultra-modern and deeply conservative tradition. How does this seemingly incompatible combination affect your creativity in the digital age?
YS I think that Japan has long had the power to skilfully grasp the good points of other parts of the world. This is why Japan has created new values by respecting its longstanding history and culture, while using craftsmanship with caring details. I think the environment for this unique Japanese incompatible combination is by no means bad for creatives who are trying to create new values. However, it seems that recent digitization has destroyed this old and good tradition in Japan and created a ‘new and conservative tradition’ on top of digital. For example, in terms of advertising, many Japanese companies are satisfied with merely incorporating digital, which is regarded as good in the world, such as online platforms and marketing methods. Then they are trying to protect the interests they have acquired there. In other words, even in new digital media, they have established a conservative way, saying things like ‘we have to be like this with digital’. In order to create unique, cutting-edge products in this digital age, I believe that we must recognize a more diverse range of values and respect even more liberal ideas.
L[A] We think of craft skills such as typography, illustration and art direction as fundamental to elements of Japanese creativity. How do these translate into the digital world — a world where these skills can at times seem secondary to the demands of data and technology?
YS To some extent, we have made progress with digital transformations, and to some extent, the digitization of systems in the world has become widespread. From here on, once again, the power of design and the power of detailed craft will become important.People do not move just with data, technology, and mechanisms. In digital spaces too, there is a growing demand for the quality of touch. Convenience and efficiency are important, but we also need to provide experiences that make you feel the heartbeat of the brand, even if it seems inefficient.I think Japan’s design and craft comes into the picture right now. Of course, there are some areas that require updates in line with the digital age, but I think that we can apply our core skills of design and craft as they are. The transition of these core skills is one of my tasks.
L[A] What are your ambitions for this next period in your career? How will you manage and inspire your huge team across such a diverse range of clients? What creative legacy do you hope to build during your time as CCO?
YS Creativity is the most important factor in creating value even if areas change. As CCO, I will continue to advocate the importance of creativity, and strive to make Dentsu outstanding as a Creativity-First Company that goes beyond our regular playing fields, and provides society with the unexpected, interesting and valuable.To achieve this, it is important to make the most of the diversity of our 800 creatives. Rather than standing at the top and controlling everyone towards the same direction, I hope to become a CCO that encourages people to each go their best way. Some creatives may be losing their confidence because they feel their advertising skills may have become outdated. But that’s not true, and I’m convinced from my experience that our creativity can be applied to any domain. I would like to continue to support everyone in order to regain full confidence and support the diversity of creativity.
L[A] If you weren’t doing your current job, what would you most have liked to do? And where might your ambitions take you in the future?
YS If I hadn’t been doing this job, I think I would be surrounded by nature, just like when I was 10 years old. It might be as a fisherman, or a person who lives a selfsufficient life in the mountains. But I still would be using my smartphone and the internet every day (laughs). In my personal time, I am participating in activities to create alternatives to an urbanintensive future. In that community, we think about how to fully use technology in a natural environment and how to live with maximum intellectual productivity. I want to use my creativity to create such a fun way of people’s life in the future.
L[A] What is it that most excites you about life in Tokyo? Can you tell us a little about your life outside the office?
YS In Tokyo, I like to walk through the old streets, get myself lost in narrow alleys, and find out the life of people who used to be there. It’s a lot of fun to find traces of history connected to our current lives. Speaking outside of Tokyo, I belong to a canoe team called the Tenpuku-Tai (‘Capsizing Squad’) and I travel down rivers all over Japan with my team members. There are many wonderful and beautiful rivers in Japan, and we canoe, capsize, laugh our heads off, and have ‘hot pot’ by the river at night. I found that the best drink in the world is not a vintage whisky or a million dollar wine, but a beer after getting soaked in the river.
L[A] For visitors, your vast home city can be difficult to get to know. Do you have any ‘secret tips’ on areas off the normal tourist map that are worth exploring?
YS It’s fun to go around famous tourist spots in Tokyo, but if you jump on one of the trains and go to the suburbs for about 30 minutes, you’ll see the true lives of Japanese people there. I think this is a Japan that you can’t find on the Internet.
L[A] We’d love to be able to give our readers some insider recommendations on bars, restaurants, shops and cultural events they shouldn’t miss.
YS Well, I recommend the eastern parts of Tokyo such as Kuramae, Morishita, and Kiyosumi Shirakawa. There are various types of restaurants like nice Japanese bars, old shops, and cafés. These places may be forgotten areas for Japanese people, but I love it there, and these places are popular among overseas visitors.
‘Find Your Own Way’, Otsuka Pharmaceutical
‘Camouflage Against the Machines’, Unlabeled, NEXUSVII
‘13865 black dots and 2 red dots’, The Nagasaki Shimbun