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Global challenge of the big sell

by Anthony Fensom

THE DENTSU WAY, by Kotaro Sugiyama and Tim Andree. McGraw Hill, 2011, 310 pp., $28 (hardcover)

Founded in 1901, Dentsu Inc.’s success in becoming Japan’s top advertising agency, and the world’s fifth-largest, reflects the nation’s development from a sheltered, rural-based economy to an international high-tech powerhouse. Now, more than a century on, can Dentsu — and the rest of Japanese business — make the next step forward and become a truly global brand of the information age?

The issue of converting domestic dominance into global relevance has been a vexing one for Japan’s businesses, with the shrinking domestic market forcing more to venture offshore, often with mixed results.

While Japan’s advertising market is the world’s second largest, Dentsu is expecting more from its global network of 27 countries, which contributed only a fraction of its $22 billion net sales in the latest fiscal year despite active efforts by the late President Yutaka Narita, who died two weeks ago, and his successors.

Aimed at an overseas industry audience, the company-written “The Dentsu Way” provides an informative outline of the history and philosophy of the powerful Tokyo-based agency, focusing on its “Cross Switch” model of integrated communication across a variety of fields.

First released in Japanese in 2008, the English-language edition is a collaborative effort by Dentsu’s Senior Vice President, Kotaro Sugiyama, and Tim Andree, the company’s first non-Japanese executive officer, together with the Dentsu Cross Switch team.

Andree’s involvement is perhaps particularly significant, given the current debate over corporate governance and the need for Japanese boards to be more reflective of their global aspirations.

Unlike the specialist agency model that is typical in the West, Dentsu is an integrated provider with services spanning market research, media advertising, creative design and public relations, reflecting its founder Hoshiro Mitsunaga’s original establishment of both a news agency and advertising firm.

In its “Ten Spartan Rules” of business, and the annual pilgrimage to Mount Fuji by 500 employees aimed at giving them a “360-degree view,” there are some cultural aspects of Dentsu’s operations that may intrigue Western audiences.

Jargon is an unfortunate feature of the advertising and marketing profession, and this work is no exception. With terms like its “AISAS” model (attention, interest, search, action, share), core and scenario ideas and contact points, Dentsu has its share of marketing mysteries that may perplex readers from other fields.

Using the analogy of Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu being drawn out of her cave, the authors suggest consumers need to be encouraged to “come out from within their Information Barriers on their own accord” rather than being bombarded with advertisements in an era of information overload.

In the case of Shueisha Inc.’s 2007 “Jump Square” manga anthology, this was achieved through a successful multichannel campaign that aimed to attract new readers rather than simply satisfy hardcore comic fans. Dentsu generated “buzz” by getting its audience to hunt for clues on the new series, including a “manga relay” on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line that required fans to get off at every train stop to access a whole story.

Another acclaimed campaign drew a crowd of 1,500 people to Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills in 2007 where, together with lead actor Daniel Radcliffe, the audience “cast a magic spell” via 29 searchlights into the sky as part of a “Harry Potter” movie promotion.

While such big-budget events may be beyond most businesses, there are enough ideas concerning consumer involvement, results measurement and cross-communication to make this book a worthwhile read for marketers in Japan and overseas.

The success of Dentsu’s global push remains uncertain in the face of past challenges, but there is much to suggest it’s going to be a fun ride.