R/GA promises respectful disruption as it launches in Japan

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L-R: Masami ‘Sammy’ Hazui, Jim Moffatt
L-R: Masami ‘Sammy’ Hazui, Jim Moffatt

The company sees an opportunity to upgrade traditional practices while learning from Japan and applying insights to other markets.

R/GA has officially launched in Tokyo after a long preparation period. Masami "Sammy" Hazui, who was formerly head of mobile strategy for Rakuten Group, will lead the Tokyo office.

Campaign first reported the New York-based company’s intention to build a business in Japan in June 2016. 

In an interview in Tokyo, R/GA’s Asia-Pacific EVP Jim Moffatt said the company did not have a formal arrangement with any major Japanese agencies, which is often standard practice for international marketing consultancies when launching in Japan. "We’ve got good relationships with lots of people, but I don’t think we’d ever to a formal partnership," he said. "We would happily partner with anyone [informally] if it makes sense."

Moffatt did not name specific clients in Japan but said a "key global client" had asked R/GA to set up an office in Tokyo. It is understood that client is Google. Moffatt said the company had also established relationships with several domestic brands in sectors ranging from fashion/skincare to retail to construction. R/GA will assist clients with digital transformation and product and service development as well as communications.

The office has around 15 staff, Moffatt said. In addition to Hazui, R/GA has hired George Sugitomo, formerly of Dentsu and Dentsu Aegis Network, as ECD; and Yosuke Suzuki, formerly of Dentsu and Naked Communications, as executive strategy director. It has also moved Jon Hingston, Kumi Tominaga and Anthony Baker from New York and London to lead production and technology.

In a statement, Bob Greenberg, R/GA’s founder, called Japan "an epicenter of design and technology and a very long-desired location for R/GA." He said it was also "an ideal place for R/GA to learn new methods and evolve" while offering its own model for innovation.

Moffatt echoed in the interview that R/GA is in Japan "to learn and explore" and not to pass judgment on the industry, although he noted Japan’s marketing function hasn’t evolved at the same pace is in the US and western Europe. He said R/GA sees an opportunity to "bring something innovative and disruptive" to a market where the focus is still on paid traditional media but where people are looking for new alternatives. He added that Hazui’s background should help open conversations with CEOs or CTOs.

L-R: Anthony Baker, Jon Hingston, George Sugitomo, Yosuke Suzuki, Kumi Tominaga

In that respect, R/GA will compete with the likes of Accenture Interactive and Deloitte Digital, which are also aggressively developing their creative technology services. "On the strategy side we are competing against traditional consulting firms and in design we are maybe competing with companies like Ideo," Moffatt said.

Hazui, who also worked at Apple and was involved in launching the iPhone in Japan, said he does not see major differences between Japanese consumers and their counterparts in markets like the US. As is the case everywhere, he said Japanese companies, including the likes of Rakuten, are struggling to transform their business models and to keep up with new technology. He said business leaders are reluctant to shift to new platforms or take a chance on technologies such as chatbots for fear of losing revenue. Part of R/GA’s challenge will be convincing people to experiment. Moffatt said that would involve developing prototypes at a fast pace and giving clients the confidence "to try something new without betting the house on it".

At Rakuten, Hazui was involved in scouting for startups to collaborate with, which he is likely to continue to do at R/GA. "A lot of corporations [in Japan] are interested in working with startups," Hazui said. R/GA launched Ventures in 2014 to connect startups and established companies. For it to be effective in Japan, Hazui said a scheme would be necessary to ensure corporations make money of their collaborations.

Hazui added that R/GA will not seek to "destroy tradition" in Japan but to carry the best aspects of companies to the next stage. "I hope we can bring revitalizing energy for corporations and society," he said.

As a design-centric technology agency, R/GA enters Japan with a strong proposition, even if an initial dependency on a single large client is somewhat risky. Gerhard Fasol, founder and CEO of Eurotechnology Japan, an M&A consultancy, suggested that in particular R/GA could fill a gap in the market in terms of design. "Japanese design can be fantastic, but isn’t yet appreciated by many Japanese companies," he observed.

He agreed that R/GA can "learn a lot in Japan and take that global." At the same time, he noted that building trust and reputation takes time in Japan. He said it will be important to invest enough in the market both financially and in understanding it properly. "Many foreign companies fail because they don’t invest what it takes [and] because they set KPIs which are detached from the market," he said.