The woman taking Hakuhodo global

Ayami Nakao.
Ayami Nakao.

As the network continues a North American buying streak, Ayami Nakao says cultivating local talent will be key to the network's success outside Japan

TOKYO — Ayami Nakao, recently appointed as a Hakuhodo corporate officer (the first time a woman has taken such a role at Japan’s oldest advertising agency), spoke to Campaign Asia-Pacific about raising the agency's stature internationally.

A graduate of Wellesley College, Nakao joined Hakuhodo in 1996 but has served as a "fellow" of the company for the past 10 years. Under this special agreement, she was based independently in Paris but remained connected to the company in an advisory capacity. She also spent three years closely involved as a "bridge" in the establishment of  TBWA\Hakuhodo, a Tokyo-based full-service agency.

"I worked to make sure this entity was more than Hakuhodo and more than TBWA—to give it a spirit and a soul," she said. 

Nakao admitted that her new title of "corporate officer" was rather vague, but said that essentially she would serve as a director of global branding and lead new business. "The role used to be just a title, but mine will be much more operational," she said.

Nakao explained that her new role has three main missions: to assist Hakuhodo’s predominantly Japanese clients in global branding; to achieve stronger visibility and strengthen the reputation of the Hakuhodo brand outside of Japan; and to "create synergy" between Hakuhodo and kyu, an operating unit established last year following Hakuhodo’s acquisition of Red Peak Group. She said Michael Birkin, who founded Red Peak and is now kyu’s chief executive, would be a "close partner."

In June, Hakuhodo expanded kyu in the US with the acquisition of creative content shop Digital Kitchen. In July, it bought Canadian digital shop Sid Lee.

Nakao said her immediate plans were to assess the client roster and look at the potential for expansion. In terms of new business, she said she saw scope for Hakuhodo to work with various types of companies beyond traditional domestic clients, including "hybrid companies "— Japanese firms that acquire or merge with Western counterparts to grow. However, she said chemistry and sharing the same values would be very important.

While Hakuhodo is Japan’s second-largest agency, it is still far less prominent in the rest of the world. Nakao said Asia would be a priority region for growth, but said Hakuhodo would also pay more attention to Western markets than previously.

"In the past, we didn’t put too much emphasis on the US and Europe, but we are beginning to revisit them," she said. "They were always important, but we have been trying to figure out how to create a presence that is really unique and differentiated, and that makes sense for our clients. A lot of that will come from acquisitions and alliances, and synergies with kyu."

Building a stronger network internationally would depend on finding the right people, especially from local markets, Nakao said. "I am going to make sure we have the best teams outside Japan and that involves…having lots of respect for local talent and ensuring they have a career path," she said. "Personally I believe Japanese companies are notorious for shadow management—they tend to have Japanese employees without any understanding of [local] markets—but the most successful companies are those that have leveraged local talent. I see our business as being the optimum mix of local and global talent."

She added that she continues to draw on a lesson from Jean Marie Dru, chairman of TBWA Worldwide, whom she described as "a man of vision". "He taught me that 'global' is not a region; that it is critical to respect each market in its context and uniqueness."

Nakao said embracing racial and cultural diversity was important for Hakuhodo’s future, and that having grown up as a Japanese abroad she had always considered herself an "outsider" — something that sparked an interest early in her career in understanding the perception of Japanese companies abroad.

Although Hakuhodo's corporate officers have typically been male, she stressed that women were already well represented in the network and in subsidiary companies. She added that positive discrimination policies were counter-productive.

"I think we’re very open and not bureaucratic — also not fake," she said. "We don’t believe in having 40% women [on staff] just to say we do. If the skill set is there I believe we’re very fair and open, and I’ve seen women in our company do extremely well. We’re not going to discriminate against women by treating them as a quota. I believe that’s extremely disrespectful. Being given a 50-meter head start because you’re a woman is not how it works, either."

Looking ahead, while the bulk of Hakuhodo’s revenues still come from TV media buying, Nakao said digitization and globalization have "broken down walls" and made ideas more important than volume or scale. Referring to Japan, she said: "In the past, only mega networks could do well, but now lots of creative boutiques are doing great work. It’s not about buying media; it’s about letting the best idea win. It really brings us back to our craft. We are seeing a shift now, not just in Japan, but as a global phenomenon."

She said a challenge for client companies would continue to be "not just to stand out but to stand for something." She pointed to a conflict between company leaders without a clear sense of branding, and the company brand itself, as an issue to overcome. "It’s difficult to have an organisation that is true to the brand and not just to the CEO," she said. "I wouldn’t necessarily say the CEO needs to have a background in marketing, but they need to have respect for the brand and its heritage."

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