As Dentsu faces up to its past, here's how it can move forward

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Dentsu president Toshihiro Yamamoto bows at a press conference in Tokyo (AFP)
Dentsu president Toshihiro Yamamoto bows at a press conference in Tokyo (AFP)

Admitting wrongdoing is healthy. Now it's vital to ensure things don't just return to 'business as usual'.

For a number of people both in and outside Japan, Dentsu has become a "black company" since an employee killed herself as a result of being severely overworked. A collective of rights activists and journalists in Japan bestows the ominous title at the end of every year on the corporations they deem the most ‘evil’.

The unofficial award makes for good drama but ignores reality. Dentsu certainly deserves harsh criticism for failing to address the conditions that led to the death of a staff member. At the same time, if an entire company was genuinely rotten, it would hardly be able to attract, cultivate and retain such a highly skilled and proud workforce as Dentsu does. To be sure, not every employee is going to be overjoyed with their lot, but the same is true at any company you care to mention.

In reality, Dentsu is not really a single company at all, but an assortment of entrepreneurial enterprises, offering the most trusted and talented the chance to develop areas of their own choosing which may or may not relate directly to advertising, and which may or may not be good for business. Few advertising agencies anywhere offer quite such scope for personal development.

The organisation can also be seen as representative of Japanese society itself, which while always unruffled on the surface, continues to grapple with grave problems. The 2015 suicide was tragic, but part of a broader national problem linked to overly pressurised working conditions: the government this year described the country’s suicide rate as "critical", and has vowed to reduce it by 30% over the next decade (how the government decided on that figure is unclear, but it’s a start).

Considering Dentsu’s prominence, it makes sense for the authorities to hold the company up as an example, as is happening now in an open trial (which rarely happens for cases of death by overwork).

While these events did not happen under the current president’s watch (he only assumed leadership in January), his readiness to publicly admit collective wrongdoing and shortcomings is encouraging. Nothing can change what happened, but the cathartic admission will enable Dentsu to move forward and concentrate on fixing things for the future.

The key will be to really act, which Dentsu has apparently failed to do in the past (the recent suicide was not the first of its kind). So far, all talk has centred on cutting long working hours. There is more to it than that. The solution doesn’t lie in turning the lights off at a certain time, or cramming a week’s worth of work into four days. Certainly reducing inefficiency and distributing workloads more evenly will be important, and clients have an important role to play by moderating their demands. But beyond that, it’s about spreading the culture of freedom that already exists in some parts of the organisation.

What is essential is to ensure that management at all levels behaves responsibly and honours its duty to subordinates. Staff wellbeing should be the priority. There must be a zero-tolerance policy to bullying, which played a role in the recent incident. And an effort must be made to engage individuals in work that fits their interests and abilities. If someone is passionate about a project, they should be free to put in additional time on it. But overtime should not be a prerequisite to achieve something.

This list applies to a multitude of advertising and also PR agencies, most of which have been strangely quiet about measures to improve their own surely less-than-perfect working conditions at a time when the topic is so much in the spotlight. It is equally relevant beyond Japan. In August, for example, Campaign received an anonymous email from a disgruntled creative at a global agency in Singapore. The employee complained of ruthless client demands, spineless management, and enforced overtime to work on "proactive" briefs. Sound familiar?

As its legal proceedings draw to a close, this is the time for Dentsu to demonstrate its best qualities and influence Japanese society, and hopefully even the global advertising industry, for the better.

A version of this article was first published by Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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