Originally from Tokyo, Qanta Shimizu moved to the United States in 2013 and is a technical director of Bassdrum, the creative company he co-founded in 2018. A tech director, he explains, involves “translating creative and conceptual business into technology and, in the end, programming.”
It is midday in New York, where Shimizu is based, and he is sat in front of his computer comfortably talking about his past by video conference call. The bright light from outside streams through a window to illuminate the left side of his face, countering the cool glow from his screen.
His journey to the U.S. wasn’t a grand plan he says, explaining that he had dropped out of university and worked as a freelance editorial designer outside the advertising industry for a couple of years in Japan.
In 2006, he was hired by the Tokyo-based production company IMG SRC and it was the first time that he encountered the advertising industry’s hierarchical system.
“I didn’t like the traditional hierarchy in the Japanese creative industry, it is old-school,” he recalls. “Agency creative thinkers have dominated production companies and developers. I believe that ‘ideators,’ directors and production people should work together in a democratic way for better output.”
Wanting to change the structure of the industry, he subsequently co-founded Party, a creative company in Tokyo in 2011. However, as the only founding member with a production background, rather than creative, he felt there was a conceptual gap between himself and other founders. Conflicts soon arose and Shimizu felt the need to restart his idea with small interdisciplinary teams of thinkers and makers.
In 2013, he and his partner Masashi Kawamura decided to make a fresh start — but this time in New York. If they could make it there, they thought, their ideas might spread.
It wasn’t just work, though, that swayed Shimizu’s decision.
“When I moved to New York, my first son was 6 years old. I wanted to give him a chance to know the importance of diversity in this early stage,” he says. “Now he goes to a local public school and is growing up in a very diverse environment,” he says.
When recalling adjusting to differences in culture that he first encountered in the U.S., he explains that he learned techniques to survive.
“I have to express anger strategically when something goes wrong. Sometimes that seems to be the most effective way to make something happen in the States,” he offers as an example.
He recalls that when his kids were sick, he found the staff were sometimes uncooperative and reluctant to give him an appointment earlier than for two to four weeks later. To get what he needed, he says he had to explain his situation angrily and with emotion.
In Japan, where there is more emphasis overall on hospitality, behaving angrily less necessary, he says. To Shimizu, there are many things he finds more sophisticated in Japan, but what his home country lacks, he stresses, is diversity and the ability to see things from different perspectives.
“Living in New York gives me a sense of global trends,” he say. “For example, New Yorkers are pretty sensitive about privacy and personal information, including being concerned about face detection technology and Facebook. Japanese, though — not so much.
“I’ve noticed how the screens in some Japanese taxis quietly scan your face to show optimized ads. In the Japanese digital advertising industry, creative teams embrace new technologies and may propose projects using something like face detection without considering any privacy issues.”
Japan being so isolated in such thinking, appears problematic to Shimizu.
“A global cultural awareness is crucial when discussing promotional ideas for global advertising,” he says. “Unfortunately, Japan’s isolation means that it sometimes lacks a kind of global common sense. That will be an issue when Japanese try to work on a worldwide level in the future.”
Other benefits to living in New York that Shimizu says he enjoys include the city’s people. New Yorkers, he explains, don’t hesitate to help Shimizu and his wife carry their kids’ stroller at subway stations without elevators. Whereas, in Tokyo, he’s found that passengers in the crowded subway stations are often unhelpful and don’t even try to make space for families with strollers.
He admits that getting over the language barrier was tough, and in the beginning just finding clients turned out to be very difficult. Though he started work as a tech director and programmer, he was also a creative and technical director. Not being completely fluent in English, however, made it impossible to do creative direction in New York.
“The creative director has to communicate with the client in a deeper context, so English speaking skills mattered a lot,” he says. “I was left with operating the tech area of projects.”
Other cultural differences in the industry, however, encouraged him.
“In Japan, the tech director supports the creative director who leads. So, in the media, the creative director is kind of the star, while the tech director isn’t focused on. Business people tend to overlook the tech director,” he says. “In New York, though, people focus more on diversity (of staff), and a tech director can be proud of his own business here. That makes a huge difference.”
There are many skilled tech directors in Japan, known for their accuracy and punctuality, who Shimizu thinks would easily be successful in New York if not for the language barrier.
To help export their skills outside of Japan was one of the reasons that, in 2018, he founded Bassdrum, a new company — and community — based in both Tokyo and New York.
Now with 16 members comprising a “tech director collective,” Bassdrum aims to promote the artistry and multiskills of tech direction.
The company structure is different to Shimizu’s previous endeavors, this time with a committee of freelancers who share Bassdrum’s portfolio with companies they work for. Moreover, there is a community of around 60 international developers and creative industry people exchanging and sharing knowledge.
Will it succeed? As the saying goes, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.”
For more information about Bassdrum, visit bassdrum.org.
Name: Qanta Shimizu
Profession: Tech director at Bassdrum
Key moments in career:
2006 — Becomes a tech director at IMG SRC
2011 — Co-founds Party as its chief technology officer
2013 — Co-founds Party NY
2018 — Founds Bassdrum, a technical director collective, based in New York and Tokyo
What do you miss about Japan?: “Kenko (health) lands, which are a specific Japanese combination of hot spring, sauna and napping space. I dream about those facilities every night.”