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Top adman follows foreign peers’ lead in speaking off the cuff

by Tomoko Otake

Take notes. Lots of them. Every night for years, Koichiro Naganuma, president of Asatsu-DK Inc., the nation’s third-largest advertising agency, has written memos on newspaper articles. The nightly routine helps him a great deal — especially when asked for comments by foreigners.

“Americans and Europeans don’t want to ask me about the world markets,” Naganuma, 59, said. “They want to ask me about Japan. I make myself ready to speak off the cuff about what is going on here.”

Naganuma’s first exposure to the “world” of English came while attending a summer school in the United States during his junior year at Sophia University.

In Japan, the language had been an academic subject. He quickly realized it was a major medium of communication, and one in which everyone seemed to be fluent.

After graduating from Sophia, Naganuma studied further in the U.S., returning to Japan with a master’s in business administration in 1971. After stints at several ad and manufacturing firms, he landed a job at Asatsu Inc., the predecessor of ADK, in 1981.

Naganuma recalls that his employer back then, like most other advertising agencies in Japan, had few foreign clients, a situation he managed to reverse. Along the way, he acquired the presentation skills of the world’s top ad executives.

“I was amazed to find that the top executives of the world’s major ad firms make their own presentations . . . and that they worked very hard on their speeches,” Naganuma said. “I’ve seen how they fielded questions with confidence, often with a sense of humor, and made themselves understood in a limited amount of time.”

Naganuma said his experience communicating in English has helped him “expand his scope of thinking.”

“By acquiring a vocabulary of say 2,000 or 3,000 English words, you can learn an equal number of new concepts as well,” he said, adding that people’s attitudes can be changed by one’s choice of words.

He noted how the word “budget” sounds different to him in meaning from “yosan,” the common Japanese translation for the term.

Since assuming the presidency of ADK in September 2001, Naganuma has instilled the concept of achieving budgets, which he termed sales/profit figures that must be achieved no matter what, unlike a target, a higher figure that employees will receive a bonus for achieving.

“When you announce a budget to shareholders, that is the same as announcing your commitment to get that much money. It is a promise you must fulfill,” he said. “Yosan, on the other hand, sounds more like a wish.

“To me, the word ‘budget’ comes with the image of a knight cutting his arm and signing a document with his own blood.”

While there is no magic trick to make communicating in English easier, having an “absolutely positive” outlook helps, he said.

“You can’t say ‘this project looks difficult,’ ” Naganuma said. “Even in the face of an impossible task, you must say, ‘I’ll do my best.’ “

Such attitudes have helped him build solid relations with businesspeople around the world.

“Making your business partners say ‘I understand what you say’ is not enough. The goal is to make them say, ‘I trust what you say.’ “