The Word Works

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Winners' Circles (The Frog in the Well)

Published By: John on 01/05/11
Categories: Winners' Circles Consuming Japan Advertising

The next bit of writing for Winners’ Circles, the book I am working on. It describes the advertising industry participant’s perspective I bring to the book.

When I followed my wife Ruth to Japan in September 1980, I was an unemployed anthropologist. Ruth had followed me to Taiwan for my dissertation research, so it seemed only fair that, when she, who was studying Japanese literature, got her fellowship for a year at the Interuniversity Center in Tokyo, I would follow her to Japan. Besides, our daughter was four, and we didn’t want to break up the family. Having spent the previous year working as a research assistant in the Yale Computer Science Department’s AI Project made me more knowledgeable than most about digital technology at a time when Japanese high-tech companies were starting to flood the world’s markets with electronic typewriters, PBXs, PCs and dot-matrix and laser printers, copiers and fax machines. That, and a connection provided by one of Ruth’s colleagues, got me a job with a small corporate communications company that led, three years later, to my being hired by Hakuhodo to write English copy for export advertising. A few years later, I was part of the team that produced the pan-European launch of a new autofocus camera system, having won a competitive pitch against several European agencies. Following that break, I was promoted to “International Creative Director” and began carving out a niche helping my Japanese colleagues present their work on domestic campaigns to international clients headquartered outside Japan.

I mention all this because, while I was trained as an anthropologist and had done fieldwork in Taiwan, I was not doing fieldwork while working at Hakuhodo or later, after leaving the agency, as Ruth’s partner in our company The Word Works (http://www.wordworks.jp). I was busy with whatever the workday demanded and never got around to the systematic research that fieldwork entails. Thus, when I offer anecdotes based on my own experience, I am at best an informed informant, informed in the sense that I have some idea of what that other me, the anthropologist, is looking for. The social network analysis of archival materials, historical research and interviews with industry figures that make up the bulk of this book are essential grounding for arguments for which my haphazard memories are, by themselves, too weak a support.

That said, there are a few anecdotes that should be told because the incidents in question have shaped my interpretations of the other evidence the book contains?\at least as much, I suspect, as the academic ideas that have gone into its construction.

I vividly recall Kazuhiko Kimoto, the senior creative director who had given me my job at Hakuhodo, swearing after six months or so that he would never, ever hire another academic. To put the matter bluntly, my writing was still pedestrian; I would still get lost in the technical details of the products for which I was writing advertising and fail to extract a compelling story and squeeze it into the space allotted for the ad in question. Fortunately, Kimoto never tired of providing the verbal whacks on the head that eventually led, Zen-like, to enlightenment and the realization that deciding what to say (never everything; there was never room for that) and how to say it (to seduce instead of bludgeoning the reader) were essential aspects of the trade into which I had stumbled. There are other ways to craft effective advertising; but, working with Kimoto, I learned the art of isolating a critical detail in a product and constructing a story about it that would fit the client’s image of what the client wanted to communicate.

Thus, for example, the first of my ads to win a prize in a local English-language advertising contest was written to publicize the client’s introduction of a new printing technology for its line of electronic typewriters. The technical point was a mechanism that ensured that in every line typed the characters would be perfectly even. Having started business as a camera manufacturer, the client was obsessed with image quality. The winning headline read, “We put our reputation on every line.” Another example was a small print ad for a concert program. The client was a tire manufacturer that sponsored a Japanese youth orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall. Leafing through the client’s annual report, I noticed a picture of an airliner touching down on a runway. Any chance, I asked the account executives, that the airliner that carries the orchestra to New York land on the client’s tires? Their “Yes” led to our using the picture I’d discovered and my adding the headline,“Another way [the tire manufacturer] supports the arts.”

I also recall two conversations with Kimoto. One occurred at a time when the agency was making one of its periodic efforts to make people in the creative division conform to company work rules, i.e., show up and go home on time. Kimoto told me, “There is only one rule. If the agency gets business because you are here, you can ignore the other rules.” During the second conversation we were talking about the way in which young non-Japanese (yes, I was still very young then) would demand greater responsibility for the work they were doing. Kimoto remarked, “Look around you. This is a big company, and there is more responsibility to be taken than there are people willing to take it. Don’t try to do what somebody else is already doing. Find something that ought to be done that no one else is doing?\and just do it.” The result would be, he said, that within three months you would be the person in charge of doing whatever that was. He was right.

These interactions and conversations made an indelible impression on me. In retrospect, I now realize that much of what I learned from Kazuhiko Kimoto was conventional wisdom ?\ the conventional wisdom, that is, of people whose job is to find critical details and construct compelling stories, people who are always looking for something new, something no one has done before, people who break rules to strengthen the impact of what they produce, people I admire as mentors and models, the individuals whose lives and works are the focus of this book.

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