People | The Big Questions

Edelman’s Rowbury knows the importance of social media in tracking trends

PR firm chief keeps his eye on ever-changing market

by Dana Macalanda

Staff Writer

Name: Ross Rowbury
Title: President and CEO, Edelman Japan (since April 2010)
URL: edelman.jp
DOB: March 9, 1962
Hometown: Melbourne


On a trek along one of the Silk Road’s numerous land routes, when would ramen turn into spaghetti?

It’s a question Ross Rowbury, CEO and president of Edelman Japan, would like to eventually answer during the month-long sabbatical awarded to employees after 10 years of service.

“Does the soup slowly disappear as you get closer to Europe?” he pondered. “Or, (in) this village it’s soup, and (in) this village it’s spaghetti?”

Rowbury, who has currently led the public relations firm for eight years and lived in Japan for over three decades, has always nurtured a variety of interests often linked to anthropology.

“I find that interaction between civilizations, and history, and those sort of things very fascinating,” said Rowbury.

However, although he’s always loved languages, Rowbury knew nothing about Japan before his first visit as a teenager. The country first popped onto his radar during preparations for a year-long study abroad program through the Youth Rotary Exchange.

Rowbury was handed a list of 47 countries. For whatever reason, Japan stood out.

“Up until then I’d had absolutely no contact or any sort of experience with Japan whatsoever,” he said. “It was a two-second decision — probably less than two-second decision — that changed the rest of my life.”

Rowbury would later specialize in Japanese and economics at university after returning to Australia; translation work and a part-time job as a tour guide for Japanese visitors gave him a real-world connection to the language and upon graduating, he accepted a job opportunity that brought him back to Japan.

He didn’t expect to stay more than a couple of years, but after all this time, Rowbury reflects that perhaps he’s always answered to an inexplicable pull to the country ever since it first stood out on that list all those years ago.

During that first year abroad, the Melbourne native grew to consider Hachioji a second hometown (after returning he would include all of Tokyo). Rowbury’s small collection of hometowns is defined by his idea that a place becomes home when novelty is replaced by comfort and familiarity.

“It’s more like you’ve sort of melted into it rather than some sort of abrupt thing,” he said.

Tokyo’s dynamism, with its ever-changing events, businesses and attractions existing alongside the unexpected quiet found in its side streets are aspects Rowbury highlights as part of the city’s unique pull. In business, he still finds himself drawn to a similar dynamism reminiscent of a certain sport.

“I’m always amazed that the game of squash has never really taken off in Japan because it’s played in a relatively small area space, which is good,” Rowbury said. “It’s fast and it’s furious; (the) Japanese tend to like games like that.”

Squash’s speed is comparable to the high demand for novelty that is oftentimes difficult for other countries to match. Even his first summer abroad holds an example of this. “… in summer I made myself some green tea and I put it in the fridge. And my host mother at the time said: ‘Oh no, no, no, you should never cool down green tea. It’s bad for you. It’ll give you a stomachache.'”

Things are a bit different nowadays. “I wish I had taken out a patent on cold green tea because if I go into a convenience store now there’s so many different varieties of cold green tea,” Rowbury joked. “The constant cycle of reinvention, of the need to bring a new product … you know — the coffee shops that have the sakura (cherry blossom) frappuccino, and then it’s got to be ‘something else’ frappuccino and then another one in six months’ time.”

As a PR firm responsible for keeping track of these patterns and platforms (it’s essential for the 55-year-old Rowbury to understand Snapchat and Instagram), the result is a “constant exercise in mental gymnastics” that he still thoroughly enjoys.

“Our job is not so much to say ‘that won’t work in Japan.’ It’s explaining why it won’t work and giving people a solution to something that would possibly work in Japan,” he said.

Rowbury’s advice on succeeding in Japan is rooted in acceptance and the three “P’s” a distinguished Japanese businessman shared with him many years ago — patience, persistence and politeness.

“You know, I like the construct, ‘if you work Japan the way Japan works, it works really well,'” he said. “I think there is great value in understanding the rhythm of Japan’s business, in understanding the timing of Japan’s business, in understanding the process of Japan’s business and not jumping to conclusions that because it’s different it’s any less sophisticated … it just has a different way of getting there.”

These are a perfect accompaniment to a standard Rowbury sets for his professional and personal life in an age where he describes information as more valuable than oil.

“I think we should all be ethical in business, and fair. It’s not always easy. It’s very easy to say ‘let’s be fair and ethical,’ but in the complexity that is the world today, it can quite often be very difficult … we live in the information age and anyone who is involved in the handling or the crafting of information, which is all those people (PR, marketing, news), I think must have a higher sense of duty to ensure that whatever they are putting out there is factual, is truthful (and) is ethical to the greatest extent that they can.”


Japan veteran helms firm in rapid growth

Ross Rowbury has served as CEO and president of Edelman Japan for nearly eight years, accepting the position at the world’s top public relations firm in April 2010 and establishing the branch as Japan’s fastest-growing firm. Under Rowbury, Edelman Japan has received numerous awards, the most recent being Japan/Korea PR Consultancy of the Year in the 2017 PR Awards Asia. Prior to Edelman, he was senior managing director and chief operating officer at PRAP Japan, joining PRAP after working as managing director at Kreab Tokyo (formerly known as Gavin Anderson & Company). Kreab Tokyo marked Rowbury’s shift to public relations from the finance industry. He was director of BZW Securities, which has since been acquired by Barclays (1993-1995), assistant representative at Crosby Securities (1991-1993) and manager at Sanno Securities (1984-1991). Rowbury earned bachelor’s in Japanese and economics from the Australian National University.

The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.